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Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Snapshots of ECR

A bunch of us caught the East Coast Road being vulnerable.

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Alambara, again

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Travel morgue

I have always professed a great love for traveling with a cultivated fascination for visiting places seldom explored by archetypal tourists. I am rather predictable in my vociferous dislike for visiting national monuments or botanical gardens tucked away a little too neatly under the foul armpits of polluted hill stations. Having been a land scout for nearly six years, I have explored ethereal places such as Yellagiri Hills, Top Slip in Pollachi and exotic parts of Kathmandu. Having spent close to three years in the company of guys who rightfully should be restrained with sedatives and leather straitjackets, I have journeyed to nether regions of Kodaikanal, serene rivers in Kottayam and also taken photographs and collected skeletal remains of exotic starfish as erstwhile souvenirs in sleepy coastal villages en route to Pondicherry. Most of all, having befriended my favourite cousin sister’s hubby (an obsessively adventurous chap) for the greater part of 1997 – 2001, I was willfully led astray to strange jungles near the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, Malai Mahadeswara hills and ghostly stretches of dense vegetation in the Western Ghats.

It’s been nearly a year since I had a proper trip. My business trip to Singapore was a nightmare only rivaled by kidney stone surgery I had to go through the year before. My last visit to Kodaikanal was when I was switching careers and henceforth even consumption of copious quantities of magic mushrooms could not lift the realistic distractions that kept annoyingly fluttering in my mind. I am pretty sure that I have lost a considerable amount of interest in getting out of the city and into the tender arms of quiet destinations. Maybe life has caught up with its gentle worries or perhaps I have simply grown tired of such indulgences. Maybe I just don’t like taking such trips anymore. Whatever it is, one thing is for sure. I am going to do this one more time, if not for reclaiming a distant memory then at least for hitting the pause button on life to send a gentle reminder to self that I once was a traveler.

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The hills have no sighs

The last time I visited Coonoor, both time and space were conspicuous by their absence in my memory. A few weeks ago, I merrily scaled an altitude of 2000 feet to drench a weekend in her love. The train from Chennai gathered steam slower than a sloth on medication and as usual, I was grumpy. These train journeys were always tedious but never wanton. Thanks heavens for that. I spent hours in the train, counting seconds before the dawn breaks through the sky and sketches portraits of her reflection on my face.

Upon reaching Coimbatore, I met her and a few chutney sandwiches that she had bought to keep us company as we headed out to Coonoor. The taxicab climbed up the cold hills, surrounded by wet greenery silently serenading the sound of warmth. Holding her hand with much aplomb, I let the beautiful pictures painting themselves atop the hills skid past her cheeks and fall into my eyes. Everything appeared more peaceful than they actually were. The clock struck 11 a.m. as the disappearance of signal on my cellphone was greeted by fluffy, moist waves of mist floating effervescently through the hills. It was an invitation to sink slowly into an abyss of serenity. I held her hand tighter than I normally did, hoping to feel the warmth she carried in her fingers in my own.

Taj Gardens was nothing short of quaint. And for a few extra bucks, we munched on chicken sandwiches and sipped on hot chocolate while the world around us moved at a pace that is normally reserved for cocoons and war veterans. The room was non-deluxe and everything that we had hoped for. Far from the madding crowd and comfortably nestled next to a lush, green lawn. The bed looked like it jumped straight out of a pre-war literature and straight into our weekend and the pillows…ahh let me tell you about the pillows…they were soft like melting cheese, often caressing the flesh to move without a sound.

In the evening, we walked. Into the local cemetery, out of the church and back on the streets of Coonoor. In the cemetery, we found lost love, Anglo-Indian names, grand epitaphs, and even a tombstone which read, “In here lies, my love who left me in 1876”. We held hands and continued further, seeking out each hidden corpse now only identified as the way their loved ones used language to portray how much they were missed.

While taking a short walk uphill, we stumbled upon orange bulbous tulips that strangely looked quite in tune to a red Getz car parked nearby. We made connections that weren’t there. We found peace in obscurity. The hills and the ghostly mist that gracefully glides above its shoulders made summer special once again. As special as it is, but never close to how pretty it could be.

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Alambara again

Sun swims for our viewing pleasure
Sun swims for our viewing pleasure

Prepare and initiate

The preparation for the trip to Alambara backwaters was both necessary and perhaps a tad too long. At about 6 in the evening, Reuben, the HR guy whom insects and people disgust to no extent, and I started recording an Mp3 music compilation. We called it ‘Road Tripping’ and exchanged at least three high-fives before sobriety kicked in and so did the feeling that we were doing something lame.

I brought Iggy Pop, White Stripes, Meat Puppets, King Crimson and others. Reuben was armed and presumably dangerous with Megadeth, Alice In Chains, Pink Floyd, Skid Row and Pearl Jam. But the song, which was almost as crucial as the trip itself was ‘Lie Without A Lover’ by newcomer Robi Dracos Rosa. The guy looks like Ricky Martin and wrote lyrics that didn’t require too much assistance from the brain. The music however shone like a cracked mirror. It was an incredibly catchy pop song, sounding almost futuristic in its recognition of subtle harmonies.

Last week, an accidental viewing of VH1 introduced me to this song. And after the others heard it, it was settled that we needed to take that trip to Alambara.And the rest avoided history by being a culmination of awkward planning and wishful thinking. Yuvraj, the resident chink, was on his way down to our not-so-friendly neighbourhood reporter Gopu’s place and Deepu had already (gleefully too) started initiation of stage two.

Rinse and Repeat

Pass the smoke
Pass the smoke

Coffee was being served haphazardly and just the way we liked it. The apparatuses came out of hiding and so began our hazy journey into the long night. It was 9.30 pm, Yuvraj and Gopu were still missing and the three of us were halfway through the process of passing out of our collective senses.

Several hours later, the three of us moved farther from sobriety; latecomers Yuvraj and Gopu were drunk and excessively smiling respectively.

Kickstarting another memory

It was 3.15 am when we hit the road. We had to fill up petrol and check the air, both of which took more time than what was bearable. It was almost 4.20 am before the ECR highway greeted us with much kindness. The intro bass riffs of ‘Lie Without A Lover’ kickstarted a refreshing drive down memory lane. I previously had found the lyrics to be quite corny but all of sudden the words “Hey these nights are fashioned around you / I guess the path of love is no longer haunting you” seemed rather poignant. Art, I tell you.

Pause

Reflections...
Reflections…

I had been to Alambara twice this year. Gopu had accompanied me during the second visit. Yuvraj, Reuben and Deepu were as clueless as bats on sweltering afternoons. Now, where the hell was this place? Wait. Stop. Turn around, man. “Anna, where is Alambara?” “Oh ok, thanks anna”. Take this left. Let it rip, man. We are here!

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Star-Rocked

The night before Sunday, I hit the Star Rock pub with some strange fellows. And we drank like fishes out of water. The music was loud. Loud, I tell you. The other morons in the pub were dancing to guitar riffs and headbanging to thrash metal. It was as though they existed in a parallel universe. The four of us, surrounded by vodka, beer, French fries and lamb dishes, had to message each other in order to carry out a reasonably coherent conversation. The music was fuckin’ loud, man.

Early Morning Blues

I had to catch the early morning flight to Coimbatore. At the ungodly hour of 2 am, my body finally accepted the fact that I was drunk. My mind had some catching up to do. The cellphone display clock struck 2.30 am and my head started to feel unnecessarily heavy. Oh yes, I was going to have a hangover in just over an hour.

The Inconsequential 30 Minutes

The trip to the airport was forgettable. I felt groggy and the air-conditioning was just too cold. I was on the verge of frowning.

I Hope You Crash

I really wish that Air Deccan ran itself out of business. It’s a terrible flying experience. It is terribly cheap but still, fearing for life and limb in mid-air is ridiculously scary. The Wright brothers would eat crap and die if they had lived long to see this atrocity. Adding to this miserable feeling, most of the other passengers were first-time flyers. Most of these in-bred dickheads were either ogling at the hapless airhostess or gaping at the passing clouds. The hangover just made things worse.

You Better Google Stockholm Syndrome

The flight landed…er, unceremoniously skidded on the landing strip at 7.15 am. For some odd reason, I frantically reached for my cellphone and eagerly switched it on. I just wanted to sit down and sleep for some time. I think it’s the Stockholm syndrome.

Almost Perfect

It felt nice to walk along the Avinashi road in Coimbatore. The weather was nice and the coffee served at one of local stores was just as refreshing. The hangover persisted but then the coffee started to work its magic.

She

She didn’t look the same for a while. For a good half-an-hour, she looked like her own doppelganger. Maybe one year is a long time. Maybe my brain cells have been fried. Either way, it was unnerving. But like I said, only for a while. Soon familiarity kicked in. And so did the nice old feeling.

Culinary Fright

I have eaten a lot of dosas in my lifetime. Butter dosas. Masala dosas. Cheese ones. Heck, even chocolate dosas. But the one I had to consume at Hot Kitchen on Avinashi road was like none other. Despite her warning that the food sucked at this restaurant, I never expected to eat tamarind-tainted breakfast. More unfortunate was the fact that I had ordered for ordinary dosa.

One Hour And Still No Coffee

Our one-hour tryst with the coffee shop at Nilgiris was cute, to say the least. We sat there and chatted away to glory, completely oblivious to the fact that we were defiling social decency by not ordering anything. Oh what the hell, it felt good to be indecent.

A Refreshing Sigh

It was 11.30 am and the weather was still beautiful. She said it was rather hot. I said, oh my fuckin’ god, I am from Chennai. The Race Course Road was not what I had expected. It was better. The greenery looked picture perfect and the tar gleamed on the road. And no matter what she says, I thought the intricate designs on the pavement were stunning!

Killing Killjoy

Normally, I don’t like coffee shops. The ones in Chennai have harbored my loathing. However the Barista coffee shop on Race Course Road had an ambience, which was soothing to the senses. The cafe-something-with-whipped-cream-choco-chips-something fell short of my expectations. But the lovely wind chimes and dreamcatchers hanging on the ceiling were to die for.

My Friend In Misery

Time flies when misery is amongst pleasant company. All said and done, I had a lovely Sunday. I don’t think she would disagree. If she did, I have bamboo canes waiting to be brandished.

Seriously I Hope You Crash And Burn

The return flight was worse than any other. The plane had a bit of turbulence when it went through a storm cloud. The airhostess was a guy, who smiled too often. Scarily enough, a few of the passengers were ogling at him too. I don’t think gender matters to these nincompoops.

An Uncomfortable Sigh

After landing in Chennai, I felt at home and terribly uncomfortable. I really don’t like where I live and whenever I do leave, it’s just too brief. The Sunday ended on a bit of a sour note. On a melancholic feeling that I belong to a place, which does not deserve to accept me. What can I say? Without company, misery feels left out.

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And Then There Was Naan

Like I said, most of the streets were dead clean and calm, but also more than a few reeked of fried seafood. That was pretty much the staple diet of Singaporeans. For every person gobbling a bowl of plain rice and squid meat, there was another one nearby digging his chopsticks in unrecognizable parts of some poor fish’s anatomy. The corner shop near my block was a restaurant called Suo-Kee. They mostly served noodles, a variety of mean-looking soups and fish sticks dipped in masala sauce. Spicy masala collected from hell’s fire and brimstone. The sickening part of eating in such restaurants was that the food seemed more alive than cooked. Little pieces of squid were wriggling on the plate and one time I actually wondered if one of these sea-bound critters was frowning at me.

Apparently other options solely included of a chain of Indian restaurants, which served only non-exotic Indian dishes. Anandha Bhavan, Saravana Bhavan, Chettinad and the rest. I didn’t enjoy the food at all; the rice was basmati by breed and rough by texture. The side dishes were tiny in quantity and odorless.

The worst dining experience however was at Mushroom Park. It was an ethnic Taiwanese restaurant where the menu had four black words. Vegetable. Chicken. Mutton. Bacon. Apart from these, all they had were mushrooms. The waiters were devastated when I made it clear that I was neither amused nor impressed by their variety of mushrooms. Only at the end of the meal, which included tedious traditional serving methods, the bacon finally arrived. It just sat there on the plate, terribly upset that it was being shabbily treated. I bet it knew how I felt at this goddam restaurant.

Thoroughly irritated by the evident culinary nightmare, I wandered into a place called Upper Thompson Road. And slyly tucked away behind the pavement was a restaurant known as Banana Leaf. It seemed liked one of those places where people seek to socialize rather than fret about the lack of sauces. But it didn’t matter. If I had the fortitude to walk into Chennai’s Mocha Coffee Pub where IQ points dare to drop beyond sane levels, then Banana Leaf should be a walkover. Right? Well, 45 minutes later, I was munching away at the best dam Naan I have ever tasted. The potato curry didn’t do any harm either!

After my first trip to Mocha, I swore on every dead man’s grave that I would rather stomp on a litter of sick puppies than go there again. Standing outside Banana Leaf, still holding on to the paper tissue…I patiently waited for a moment to let the feeling of doing something right sink in.

Fear Factor

In a country brimming with South Asians, Little India rests uneasily across Chinatown, which is the only other another place capable of vague depravity. Of course, the roads are wider. Little India lies east to the Singapore River and has the dubious distinction of being the most polluted part of the country. Originally this place was a division of colonial Singapore where Indian immigrants would reside under the British policy of ethnic segregation. Now it has become an abode for xenophobic south Indians and paranoid north Indians. The street corners are filled with garbage, saliva stains are liberally found on the walls of nearby buildings and people cross the road without a care in the world.

Several Hindu temples, mosques, and other places of worship can found here without much fuss. The star attraction is however, Mustafa Shopping Centre. It is a gigantic shopping mall, which is open all day, all night and all week. You can buy 56 types of shaving lotion at the stroke of midnight. You can get an aqua massage at 3 in the morning. Russian art-house movies, Robert Plant’s Road To Timbuktu album, skull necklaces, herbal cough syrups, professional cameras, plasma screen television sets, leather belts, nutmeg chocolate syrup, ‘I Love Singapore-Lah’ T-shirts and so much more.

I visited the shopping centre every other day. If not to see what other Bill Murray DVDs I could buy, then at least to take a break from whiskey & cigarettes.

Chuck That And All Those

I did a lot of things in Singapore that would have cured insomnia if given a chance. It was actually a business trip. I had to do make deals with fat men, drink their stupid herbal tea and sign papers. Basically doing things, which didn’t did not fit into my overall scheme for life. But I don’t want to write about it. An uncle also accompanied me for the trip. I stayed in his apartment and he left after 3 days. I also don’t want to write about him.

Finally I saw a Chuck Norris film on a local channel. I definitely don’t want to write about that.

Little Man In Big China

Chinatown is located in the larger district of Outram. Since the largest ethnic breed in Singapore is the Chinese (75% of the population), Chinatown is considerably less crowded than it previously was. But it still

bears the most frequent resemblance to all things weird and Chinese. It is also here where I tasted for the very first time – snake meat. It tasted like chicken.

It has several sub-districts, most of which are sprinkled with shopping malls and more shopping malls. The sheer size of the consumer market here is beyond huge, it is scary.

Evidently each shopping mall looked as though it was cloned from the fabric of the one next to it. All of them were so dam similar. After walking for a good 3 hours and exploring the place to death, I stumbled upon two stores, which would have kick-started a puberty revolution in Chennai. Condom Fantasy was one, which sold…er…condoms.

The other store was XXX Store For Adults. And if you look below the store sign, there is banner, which proudly proclaims “No Porn Magazines, X-rated Movies or Sex Service”. A couple of kids were standing outside this store and exchanging high-fives and nodding their heads in glee. Minutes later, it sunk in. No X-rated films. They ran like the fucking wind.

Routines Amidst Ruins

I hate Chennai because of all the routines that I have to physically and mentally go through. Funnily…actually sadly enough, routines were what saved me from Singapore’s clutches. None of my routines clashed with the ones of locals. Not on any level. They did their thing and I did mine. I would normally wake up from reading at around 8.30 in the morning, get freshened up, go to 7/11 and drink copious amounts of cold coffee, go back to the room and smoke a cigarette, walk out of the door once again and visit places where I have never been before. Most of the places disappointed my sense of adventure, but that did not stop me from doing it again and again. Mostly I missed lunch and had a softy chocolate ice cream instead.

Evening coffee would be replaced by that golden liquid gently spilling from Mr Johnny Walker and more often than not; dinner would solely consist of butter-smeared bread slices accompanied by more whiskey. Then came the promenade into unknown regions of Ang Mo Kio as several cigarettes were puffed away on cue. 7/11 again for more coffee and then back to reading until the next morning. Not exactly a schedule packed with eagerness but certainly a package deal, which stopped me from committing multiple acts of self-mutilation.

Hell Awaits

The return flight to Chennai was scheduled to take-off at 8.25 am. I got up at 3.30 am, took an uncomfortably cold bath and rushed to the airport at 4.30 am. I was the first passenger to check-in the baggage and also on the first line at the immigration counter. And then I shopped for liquor, beads and books. In-between I found ample time to sit at their lounge and guzzle down three Screwdrivers.. Vodka and orange juice did wonders to the bright colours of the Changai Airport.

The waiting lobby was filled with irate businessmen, enthusiastic families still clicking photos and lots of foreigners wondering how the rest of the world would treat them.

After 45 minutes of delay, the flight took to the skies. I closed my eyes and knew what I was going to do when I reached Chennai. I smiled a bit and wondered what effect it might have on me after 12 days.

Upon arriving at the Chennai Airport, I took a taxi back home. The taxi driver was a chatty sort of a fellow, so I told him a bit about Singapore and how clean and boring it was. He heard all of this with great intent and eventually distracted himself thoroughly with a little help from a few ladies standing at the bus stop.

Somewhere along the way near the Ashok Nagar Pillar, a speeding ambassador car crashed into a biker, sending him head first onto a lorry parked at the corner of a crowded road. In what was probably the biggest mistake in his life, the driver reversed the car and tried to make a getaway. A mob of people ran towards the car, pulled the driver out and proceeded to beat the living hell out of him.

The taxi driver turned back to look at me and he said, “Saar, nambha ooru kaete poghidhe saar, neengo Singapore kay poidingo, Saar ” (“Our city is going down the drain, you should go back to Singapore”).

A tiny voice briefly echoed inside my head…I really fucking cannot-lah.

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La-la land, part 2

They, The People

I have never seen Chinese women wear burkhas and bob her head to some futuristic pop song on their iPod. It was hilarious. For a more culturally experienced person, it might have been a representation of South Eastern diversity. It was mental in more ways than one cause I have always been a xenophobic cliché. A south Indian who gaps like a garden lizard each time he steps out of Tamil Nadu.

I should get out more often. That might wipe the silly look on my face whenever I see a Thai lady wearing a salwar kameez.

La-La Land

Mr Daniel, the father of "lahs"

Mr Daniel, the father of "lahs"

The Singaporean Tamilians and a lot of the general populace have this irritating habit of uttering ‘lah’ at the end of every sentence. “You cannot cross the road, it is red light-lah”. “Does it taste like the food you have in India-lah?” “Singapore is so clean, ella-lah?” After a point of time, it violated every moment of peace that I tried to have.

With my hands in pocket, I put my head down and take a walk along the Ang Mo Kio Centre. Out of instinct and my previously confessed love for nicotine, I lit a cigarette and puffed away nonchalantly. Out comes the war cry…“Cannot smoke here-lah”.

The park was beautiful. Almost eerie. It looked like something out of an opium dream. I sat down on a bench, tore open the wrapper and popped in some sort of an almond chocolate. Before I contemplate adhering to environmental decency, some dude screeches like a wicked witch…“Throw paper in dustbin-lah.” At the end of the trip, I swore that I would rip my fingernails out if I had that stupid ‘lah’ sound again.

The day before yesterday, after a few rounds of Absolut vodka and what not, painkiller picks up a DVD and asks me where I had bought that. Out comes the reply from my slurring lips…“Singapore-lah”.

Don’t look at me…I’m blaming it on the liquor.

Call Me A Polite Taxi

The taxi drivers in Singapore are so polite that you cannot hesitate but consider giving them a bigger tip. Maybe it is a ploy used to plunder tourists without using a sharp object.

I didn’t know anybody in Singapore. So every time I got into a taxi, I started blabbering and asking unnecessary questions. “So Singapore is a small place, eh,” I said with absolutely no energy behind it. “We don’t pay so many taxes in India,” I said, trying to act like it actually mattered. The taxi drivers smiled, took the conversation and ran with it. Interesting conversations about Lebanon, ‘bastard’ Bush, music and Hitler took shape from these humble roots. I asked one chap (Mr Lu-Kwan) if he supported the death penalty for drug trafficking. He swiftly replied that the only criminals deserving of death sentence were those who supported Bush.

Most of the conversations were rapid and profound. Language barriers were temporarily ex-communicated for interrupting geniuses at work. I always gave each one of these guys an extra dollar, especially after I heard that they had to pay 94 dollars each and every fucking day to the government.

Yet you could never catch them frowning or complaining about work. Either these chaps are wonderful protagonists of Buddhism or they really needed that extra dollar from me.\

The Zoo

The Singapore Zoological Park is only rivaled by its counterpart in San Diego. It was a work of art, man. Poetry in motion. Each and every beast was kept in its supposed natural habitat and well; I really can’t use words to say how beautiful it was.

Images always seem to do a better job than words, even if they are taken from a digital camera.

“Death from behind”

Singapore’s premier tourist habitat was once known as Pulau Blakang Mati, which in Malay means the “Island (pulau) of Death (mati) from Behind (blakang)”. Now it is known as Sentosa Island. Sentosa, which means ‘tranquility’ in Malay, has rapidly grown into one of the most popular Island resorts.

I didn’t like it one bit.

From the moment I stepped into Singapore, everyone had been pestering me to visit Sentosa. “Yes yes, Sentosa, very good, very wild, you will much enjoy.” That was pretty much the synopsis of everyone’s impression of Sentosa. Once again a previously conceived mental image ruined me to bits. I had imagined a bustling island with little pockets of tranquility, surrounded by aging hipsters searching for the ocean with a bottle of Jack and street-smart Island natives trying to convince white people to buy some really good hashish or sea-shells from them. I am dark-skinned, a violent shade of dark brown to stretch my luck a bit. But what the hell, I thought, I didn’t mind paying more for some good hallucinations and what did it matter if they charged me more for the colour of my skin. Like I previously said, my mind was not on vacation.

And what I got was more civility. Hordes of tanned tourists and Malays ran like obedient rats into gigantic buses and sat down without uttering a word. At their respective stops, they got down and hurriedly took out their digital cameras. The roads were cleaner than the ones in the city, nobody in sight smoked anything and most irritating of all, strolling was apparently frowned upon.

For what it was worth, the Underwater World was satisfying, if not breathtaking. I had never seen bigger aquatic creatures in my life. The Gar species of fish, the mammoth spider crabs and Manatees were worthy of being stared at for hours. The setting was surreal as I walked along the path surrounded by bent glass structures, a couple of Lucy Lu look-alikes and a thousand life forms never before seen by my weary eyes.

The best part of the trip was Tony. Tony is a 12-foot albino python. His trainer Nishin Bhadri (from Pune) took a picture of me with Tony effortlessly wringing my shoulder and neck. I think this is going to be one of those rare treasured possessions of mine.

Dr Do-Little aspirations besides, I started developing the urge to consume snake meat.

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La-la land, part 1

Run Like Hell

The flight to Singapore was scheduled to take-off at 1.25 pm. At ten minutes past 1, I was stuck in traffic near Guindy. It was hopeless. This was supposed to be my first trip away from India and I wasn’t even going to be on it. Or so I thought without even bothering to consider the abysmal standards of Indian Airlines. Of course there was a delay. Thirty-minutes too. Sometimes it pays to be a part of something that sucks.

On-Board, Very Bored

I am a frequent flyer and accordingly, each flight has been worse than the previous one. My school trip to Calcutta in 1992 was the least frightful despite the airhostesses of Indian Airlines bearing uncanny resemblance to Goddess Kali. And after that, I have traveled in Jet Aiways, Kingfisher, Paramount Air Deccan, all of which did nothing but increase the complexities of my phobias. Perhaps I am being a bit hard on Jet.

Forward to July 2006…and here I was on-board the Indian Airlines. A jackhammer sound followed by a feverish vibration signaled the take-off. I closed my eyes and wished that I were in pretty place. Surrounded by waterfalls, meadows and all that feel-good shit. And we were up and away.

In what could have only been a direct result of utter boredom, I eagerly waited for the complimentary bar service and then proceeded to take many abdominal risks by consuming four glasses of whiskey, the first three with soda and last one with nothing but a mischievous glee. I woke up only a few minutes before we landed. I was supposed to be excited. Instead I had a headache and an intense craving for aspirin. Helen Keller once said, “One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.” Ah what the hell did she know? She was blind, deaf and mute. Probably not very perceptive either.

Not-So-Fast

My first sight of Singapore was glorious. The sheer enormity of Changi Airport (and its deliriously satisfying Liquor Mart), the moonlit buildings outside and the air-conditioned taxis were a feast for the eyes. Yes, it is true. The roads over there are incredibly clean. Even the goddam tar gleams as if it has been polished for eons. A sad sight it was to see these speed demons go to sleep on the highway.

The traffic flow is as smooth as Barry White’s music. But none of the vehicles fancied taking advantage of such. Everyone seemed to be in bumper-car mode without actually bumping each other. They drove in fine lines and religiously adhered to speed limits. My initial reaction was “Man, those maniacal drivers in Chennai would never be so law-abiding”. Somewhere between the first pop of aspirin and my first sight of the Singapore National Stadium, a voice went off in my head, “Neither would I”.

Ang Mo Kio or Bust

It took almost two days for me to pronounce it without sounding like I had swallowed a diminutive China doll. Ang Mo Kio was where I was at and where I was going to be for the next two weeks. It was an apartment complex, which was stretched to a suburban part of Singapore. It was freakin’ huge, man. I was in block 320. Not a day passed by without wondering if there were actually three hundred and twenty other blocks. I never bothered to ask cause I had more pressing concerns.

Each apartment had a couple of restaurants, at least one ice-cream shop, various clothes stores and a line of ATM machines. The restaurant in my block served the worst rice I had ever eaten. Their two specialties were Duck Tail Porridge and Fish Head Soup. As I later discovered, both the dishes stayed true to their names and mostly contained inedible body parts of mutilated creatures.

7/11 All Day, All Week

7-11 is an international conglomerate, which operates the largest chain of convenience stores in twenty countries. In 1946, it took roots in Texas only to be greeted with lukewarm response from those dam rednecks. After a few years, it slowly grew to be recognizable and by the year 1991, a Japanese-based company Ito-Yokado purchased the majority interest from its original owner Southland Corporation. Staying loyal to the creepy high productivity standards of their fellow chinks from the land of rising sun, the company men increased the availability of branded commodities and made sure that the 7/11 chain of stores were open for twenty-four hours per day and seven days per week.

For me, most of this was trivial. I didn’t care if they were redefining and enhancing consumer convenience. All I cared was that they had freshly-baked bread, cigarettes (mint-flavoured ones but still…), readymade cheese & chilli sandwiches and chilled cans of coffee. The availability of beer would have been a further blessing if not for the horrendously low amount of alcohol in them. They had vodka too. But it was blue in colour with a picture of a kid on the side of the bottle.

Things were starting to look a bit creepy.

Lights Out

I like cigarettes. I really do. And dam those Singaporean bastards for only selling Lights and Menthol. Everywhere single one I struggled to smoke tasted as thought it was stuffed with peppermint and flavourless chips of wood. Even the packets contained help line numbers and grotesque images of body parts infected with cancerous cells.

By now it was apparent that this country had declared many wars on misfits, a category, which unfortunately included smokers who prefer their cigarettes to have nicotine-levels high enough to cause some sort of lung damage.

The Apartment

The apartment was spacious enough to accommodate a herd of rhinos. The room, in which I was in and could not get out of, was barely large enough to offer extra leg space for a family of lemurs. The bed was small. A table fan was breathing heavily in the other corner of the room, trying its best to blow air into an otherwise unworthy cause. It was almost three days before I discovered that there was a spongy slide mattress under the bed.

It was comfortable. Many hours were spent as I leaned my head against the pillow and read quietly into the night. Sleep, of course, was an entirely different matter.

Turn The Page

I would have sold one of my kidneys for a good night’s rest. For 2 weeks, I tossed and turned. The trick, I thought, was in closing my eyes. Alas, even art forsake me in this dutiful battle to get some fucking sleep. Books saved me during waking hours. Them and Johnny Cash.

Mostly I read through the night. So without further ado, I proudly bring to you, the saviours of Singapore Nights…Gregory David’s Shantaram, Douglas AdamsSalmon Of A Doubt, P J Rourke’s All The Trouble In The World, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Tom Holt’s Snow White And The Seven Samurai and Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool-Aid Test.

And when I could not bring myself to read another page, I softly hummed Johnny Cash’s Ring Of Fire to myself. I did it almost everyday. In a week’s time, I began singing it loudly enough to arouse the curiosity of a toddler who often sauntered in the floor’s veranda.

This kid had green eyes and his mom (either divorced or back after serving jail time for swinging a pickaxe at her hubby’s face) was really beautiful. She mostly wore bright-blue jeans and her face expressed fewer emotions than mine.

And if my imagination had been on vacation, I would have probably made eye contact with one of them.

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And then there was Madras

Chennai was founded in 1639 as Fort St. George by the British East India Company. Bored with its none-too-interesting neighbours, this city of southeast India lies on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal.

The French captured Chennai in 1746 but the good old’ boys from Britain whopped their asses and recovered it two years later.

It is rumoured that during the transition, Madras (as it was known) was humiliated. This is understandable because I don’t think lambs, which are lined up for the slaughter, ever break out in rapturous glee.

The birth, the borrowing

Today Chennai (as it is now known) is renowned for wooing IT companies and European pedophiles. The latter is not spoke about much since people assume that such intolerable acts of perversion only exists in 18th century literature or Goa.

Borrowing chivalry and education from the Brits, cuisine and cultural impetus from the French and mixing it all up with a dash of in-bred social eccentricity, Chennai thrives on being passive.

So passive that it is entirely uninterested in being 36th largest metropolitan area of the world. Chennai is unwilling to shoulder the burden of being a city, much less bear the responsibility of sheltering an estimated 7.60 million people.

Even the Bay of Bengal frowns at this city. But there is due reason.

The Marina factor

The 12-kilometre long Marina Beach forms the city’s east coast and is one of the longest beaches in the world. This would be quite cool if it wasn’t for the fact that it is also India’s largest public lavatory, sans mugs or tissue papers.

Two rivers flow through Chennai. One of them is the Adyar River. A protected estuary of this river forms the natural habitat of several species of birds and colored plastic bottles. The other is the infamous Cooum River.

Several lakes of various sizes are located in the western parts of the city. The one in Red Hills is the nicest of the lot because it looks quite non-toxic.

Terribly uninteresting

Being the capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai houses the executive and legislative headquarters of the state government. This is of prime unimportance since such places are inaccessible to the public. Chennai has three Parliamentary constituencies – Chennai North, Chennai Central and Chennai South. This is also of little importance because I don’t feel like talking about it.

Full metal khaki shirt

Greater Chennai Police department, a division of the Tamil Nadu Police is the law enforcement agency in the city. You either have to be an idealist, an idiot, or obese to work here. But they are certainly way tougher than those Nancy boy cops in Bangalore.

The importance of being unimportant

Known as the ‘Gateway to the South’, Chennai’s culture is often touted to be quite unique. However, each city has a different culture and it would be very ridiculous to be impressed by this. Chennai, being a relatively modern city, continues to be traditional in certain ways. Again, nothing really fascinating about this since every city from New York to Timbuktu continues to be conventional in some sort of way.

Art and what not

The city is known for its classical music, Carnatic, to be specific. Apart from adhering to people who consume sambhar rice throughout the day, these shows are of no interest to anybody else. This is largely due to the fact that most of the musicians involved also consume sambhar meals on a freakishly regular basis.

Bharatanatyam, which is also the official dance of Tamil Nadu, is a fascinating display of tradition and grace. However after 10 minutes, it can bore the paint out of walls.

Chennai is also a breeding ground for Tamil art and crafts. Centres such as Krishnamurti Foundation India, C. P. Art Centre, The Foundation and Dakshina Chitra feverishly promote a dying cause. This is sad because beauty should never be neglected.

The outsiders

The majority of residents are native Tamilians and descendants of settlers from different parts of the state. The city also includes large community of Malayalees, who study, write letters to their parents in Dubai or make tea in local stalls.

The Telugu community consists of psychopaths, sociopaths and unruly business magnets.

The foreigners

The Europeans, who lurk around here and there, are either lost on their way to Bangalore or they are desperately searching for the next flight to wherever. Or innocent kids looking to make a quick buck. Those bastards should be castrated.

Up in smoke

Fair or dark, fat or thin, dyke or virgin – no woman escapes the glance, perverse or otherwise, of the average Chennai pedestrian. But certain women evoke more than just a glance. Women who smoke. The city is morbidly fascinated by rebellious women, especially the ones who casually smoke expensive cigarettes at tea stalls outside corporate offices.

Fear starts creeping in if the concerned lady does not drop her cigarette and beg for mercy. The morons in this city still cannot accept the fact that vices are not gender specific.

Here comes the Sun

And as for Sun TV. This news channel has incited riots, destroyed families, made babies, fought for world peace, paid tributes to their sponsors and worst of all, they have set off waves of paranoia whenever they needed to up the ante on television ratings. During the tsunami fiasco of 2004, Sun TV reporters made Chennai believe that apocalypse was around the corner.

When Indonesia was crumbling under one of the worst natural disasters ever, Chennai fell prey to televised paranoia. I would like to say more about this but it is making me feel sick in the stomach, so I shall stop.

And then there was Chennai

I have never seen Chennai erupt in joy. I have seen it scurry under the blanket during times of political unrest and natural calamities. I have seen it manage a grin when it rains in the afternoon. I don’t think the city is interested in too many things. And miracles are something it cannot recognize even if one of them wears a circus robe studded with the brightest of diamonds and holds a placard, which says, “I AM A MIRACLE”.

One of the many tragedies of this city lies in its distinct need to define the people living here. Too bad Chennai keeps forgetting to define itself.

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