Thursday, 17 October 2013

Free coffee, community breakfast and a sea of lycra

Borrowing a line from a book I am currently reading "One of the best ways to put me in a good mood, is to put me on a bike". I've lost count of the number of times my day has started off a little sluggish or indifferent, but has dramatically improved by the time I get on my bike, riding to work. Come the warmer months and these moments of happiness increase exponentially. I am sure I am not the only one with this suite of emotions.

Bicycle Victoria has been phenomenal in getting the riding movement an impetus by organising fantastic rides and incentives for people to keep riding. As part of their yearly programs, they organise the Ride2Work Day each year around October.
"The Ride2Work Program is a nationally run, year round program that encourages thousands of Australians to get started and keep them riding to work." (Ride2Work)

I've sorely missed participating in this event last 2 years, due to some bizarre reasons:
a. 2011 - Lack of coordination. I had most of the things I needed for the ride in, set up the previous night, but forgot to take care of a puncture.
b. 2012 - No bike! I sold off my old one, hoping I would be in possession of the newer one before the event, but that didn't happen and I was left twiddling my thumbs.

Got my bike off the train at South Kensington this morning and rode the rest of the way to Docklands, one of the locations for the community breakfast. I am usually aware of the number of cyclists that use this path to the city (Riding in 3 degrees), but this morning, the army kept coming. Road bikes, mountain bikes, BMXs, fixies, single-speed, folding – they were all there. The usual route past Costco (the one with the heavenly smell originating from the Costco bakery) was closed off for repairs, so had to do a bit of a detour back of the Costco store. The newly assembled Melbourne Star looked ready, but a tad uncertain. A sea of lycra descended on at the NAB forecourt (Docklands).
There was free coffee (one of those great joys, especially when taken at the end of the bike ride), fruits, scrolls and other goodies. After meandering around the stalls, I got my bike engraved (for easy police identification, should it get nicked) and also contemplated a quick massage. Caffeine was probably the need of the hour, so the queue outside the makeshift coffee joint was enormous. A few non-cyclists also sauntered in, eyeing the freebies on offer.
It was good to see so many people actively riding in to work. I mean, who wouldn't  given Melbourne’s generously flat terrain?
As I wound my way back from the event, braving the crazy winds, along La Trobe St and up Peel St, right alongside a bare and unusually quiet (because of the weekly off) Victoria Market, I couldn't wait to get stuck into my protein/muesli bars, secured liberally at the community event. 

A few more noble souls rode past my workplace, reminding me of a H.G. Wells quote “Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I have hope for the human race”.

Friday, 16 August 2013

It’s just bad parma...

It all started with a bad parma (as most things do). I love a good chicken parmigiana; especially the big gigantic one, dripping in tomato sauce and a lusty mix of mozzarella and parmesan, with a healthy side serve of chunky chips and customary salad. However, this one turned out to be the evil twin. Although it had all these ingredients mentioned above, this one was not meant to please. Instead, it turned tumultuous once inside my digestive system.

This is what motivated me to get off meat and in the process cleanse the body of any meat toxins. I pompously announced to my wife that I will not be eating any meat for the next 6 months. This wasn't going to be a test of determination or paying obeisance to a particular fad, just a plain self-imposed task. The rules were pretty simple – no meat. Egg was permissible only because it was classified under dairy products last time I checked (although these classifications are subject to immense doubt), and in any case, I didn’t think I was eating any meat via this oval shaped protein packed beauty.
Note: People clambering over each other to prove how I got the egg idea wrong can gracefully exit this post at this stage.

I am not a voracious meat eater. I've always preferred quality over quantity. My meat-eating, could be described as social, at the best. I also haven’t eaten red meat for some years now, so cutting meat totally from my diet wasn't a huge task. The fun was trying to find enough vegetarian options, especially at lunch times.

Normally preferring a light lunch at work, I struggled to find enough vegetarian replacements, either home-made or at local cafes. I can’t see a whole lot of things that could easily replace a can of tuna on toast to start with. Same with a good serve of grilled fish. Plus, it’s not easy when the café counters readily exhibit schnitzels, bacon and eggs, roasts, but position the veggie alternatives as an afterthought. I also feel café owners/take away joints do not experiment with their vegetables much. You’d either have a hastily put (often) salad sandwich, roasted veg focaccias or some sort of cheese/mushroom/spinach pide. Over the last few weeks, I have seen really badly made fried brown rice; even leftovers would have made for a better display. I saw a few salads that probably began life as vegetarian, but the temptation of adding a few bacon pieces or shredded chicken got too much for the creators. Therefore, I can safely say that I feel for the vegetarians out there. It’s not that there are no options at all; it’s just that I feel any creativity with veggies has been stifled. It’s not just the café’s alone – since a lot of friends these days are willing meat-eaters, you often see a plethora of meat dishes make their way into pot luck, but the vegetarians (few in numbers) are often left to feeding their imagination more than their tummies. And can someone please come up with a better Paneer recipe please?

On a brighter side, this is a splendid chance for me to experiment with some great veggie and fruit combinations. A café near my workplace once offered a breathtaking couscous salad, filled in with some really innovative ingredients – pomegranate seeds, cranberries, sautéed spinach, sun dried tomatoes and nuts. This, coupled with a nachos salad (yes, such a thing can exist) made for an extraordinary lunch that day. The next day I sauntered to the café with great expectations, but the lamb and chicken had fought their way back into the salad counter. The sandwich counter was still about 90% meat, with a mixed veggie roll and a salad sandwich putting up a small but futile resistance in one corner. Soy beans have readily replaced chicken at home, Tofu has made the odd appearance in Asian dishes, and so has Falafel from the Middle Eastern kingdom. A whole lot of forgotten veggies and lentils have been resurrected in the diet, to give it a bit of a variety. Salad and soup books have got quite a few pages dog-eared in the last few weeks.

I have also subconsciously started to think about veggie alternatives every time I fantasize about a schnitzel or a hot dog. A book I borrowed from the library gave me some good ideas on places to source protein and all that meat offers, so our family shopping lists has now started looking a tad different than a couple of months back. Amongst other things unknown (and better left that way), I've noticed I tend to eat more frequently every day. I am often found snacking every couple of hours, mostly healthy stuff like nuts, fruits, but snacking nevertheless, drawing in comments such as “Are you bottomless? You seem to be eating all the time” from co-workers. Eating out with mates gorging down copious amounts of poultry can throw you off-track, but I've shown some remarkable resolve in staying true to my intent. Much as I am tempted to quickly pop in leftover chicken nuggets from my son’s meal, I've desisted.

To be fair, it’s not been too bad. I am still alive, can still breathe and am happy to admit feeling much lighter and focussed.

6 weeks and counting. See how far I go.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The heavenly brew

Pounding furiously on the keyboard, trying to a get these documents done before a crucial deadline, I feel a sense of panic creeping in. I need something to soothe the nerves. I need a good strong cup chai.

Chai (tea), or chaha, as I've known it in my native language, is one of those great levellers that has got me through life (so far anyways). I can't exactly remember when my parents first introduced to this divine beverage, but surely it wouldn't have been soon enough. Although my gluttonous consumption of tea is now in considerable control, I can’t think of a day where I’ve gone (without considerable anguish) without a cuppa.

A couple of years back, my sister convinced me to join in her a 3-day detox programme. My wife thought it was a splendid idea, given that she would enjoy the sight of me going without consuming any sort of reasonable solids for 72 hours. I gave in to this popular vote and enjoyed day 1 of drinking juices (yes, multiple), butter-milk, and getting reintroduced to somedelightful fruits. There was one flaw in the master plan though. I could not have any tea or coffee for these 72 hours. When I looked up the word detox; I knew this was the idea – no tea or coffee, because it is precisely the contents of these beverages that you are planning to liberate your body off in the first place. But how does one survive without tea for 3 days? HOW! Perhaps people of a stronger willpower and constitution may dismiss this idea nonchalantly, but I am human after all.
My detox regime lasted 1 day. I actually came home early from work the second day, because I thought I felt dizzy (and bizarre) and up went the pot of tea on the stove right at the moment I got home. I can still hear my wife and sister giggling away from the next room.

Moving on, I believe strongly (as strong as I like my cup of chaha), that I am not alone; at least another billion Indians (mostly) and others can attest to the fact that there is simply no substitute for a cup of tea. Coffee may get the brain firing or whatever it is that caffeine stimulates in the central nervous system, but I understand tea does it in a healthier and gentle fashion. Last thing I want is to get my brain fried up to the point of getting up and participating in a war in the morning. I’ll settle on a good hot cuppa chaha.

Image courtesy:
Back when I was in college, I’ve consumed many a cups of cutting chai, that fabulous invention of “more than half, but less than a full glass”, on railway stations, while waiting for another astonishing invention “Mumbai local trains” to turn up. There was something about the serenity I felt in midst of a bustling Mumbai crowd, while I sipped the chai. These were little cups of heaven easily sought and brought for a rupee, back then. Because I spent much of my life in Mumbai, I probably missed out on the Pune style of dunking cream rolls into cups of highly sweetened tea. Amazing how the brain makes and retain these connections. A friend, even after having lived away from Pune for over a decade, still salivates at the mere thought of having these cream rolls, dreamingly as he sips his cuppa.

In India, chai is probably one of those things that generate employment. Not only do the chaiwallahs make a brisk business meeting the demands of millions of people, there are also other specific roles in Indian offices where the primary duty is to serve tea. Your office peon (clerk). Along with countless (and thankless) other jobs, the peon is solely responsible for providing endless cups of chai to office employees and bosses alike. The whole office pretty much functions around this vital cog.

I also like my chai brewed. While tea bags offer convenience and variety, there’s something satiating in watching and smelling the fresh tea leaves do their Brownian dance in a pot of boiling water, infused with a little ginger, cardamom and sugar sweetening the whole concoction to a new level. Stir in the milk while the pot’s coming to a boil and the drink attains a whole new dimension.
Chai served in small earthern cups on Indian trains have their own special taste, one that is perhaps enhanced by the flavour of the earthern cup containing the beverage itself. Similarly, a cup of tea on an excruciatingly hot day in summer, at lunch, between 2 innings of a cricket match has much to offer to the tired body. We may drink our chai in those humongous sized cups or flasks, but there is something entirely charming about sipping it in a cup-bashi (cup-saucer) or better still lapping it off the bashi like a grinning cat.

In Pune, the local tea place has the same reverence and following by tea-drinkers, as throngs of people visiting the local temple on a festive occasion. Sitting in these often crowded and space-challenged areas, as the hot liquid boils to degrees unknown in copper vessels, the chai is poured into small cups and served to be consumed often at steaming temperatures, you experience the same divinity as if you were sitting amongst Gods.

Image courtesy:

These local tea places are called Amrutulya, which roughly translates to “a place where you get a heavenly brew”.

A heavenly brew indeed.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Down Memory Lane – St Xavier’s High School

This morning, while I was standing near the carriage doors on the train, a group of bleary eyed school kids got on. Coming back from an Easter break, they were eagerly discussing their holidays, how they "like" completely "like" wasted their time "like" doing nothing. One kid spoke about apparently starting his school homework (Business Management, I think he mentioned) on day 1 and only got so far as writing 6 lines, before he realised the futility. The conversation then proceeded on to discussing school teachers and subjects they've taken up for the year.
Kid 1: Who’s your English teacher?
Kid 2: Uhmm…I don’t know her name. You know that Greek chick, who MC’s for that band. She’s pretty chilled out.

1995/96. Year of the milestone-like SSC exams.
In the vicinity of a very suburban housing colony Ratan Nagar, along a narrow rivulet (so claimed by the local municipal corporation), stood, and still does a rather imposing (certainly at that age) building with the words St Xavier’s High School largely inscribed on the building. 

Image courtesy: Google images
School for me and a lot of others was a place that shaped our lives, in one way or the other. While we certainly didn’t have any MC’s masquerading as school teachers, we did have some pretty good humans teaching us values that strengthened our moral fibre, or so I’d like to think.
It wasn't the best of institutions in terms of facilities. We didn’t have a school ground or a campus of anything of that sort, but what it lacked in infrastructure, it made up in environment. My teachers weren't really strict or hard nuts, except for a handful whose reliance on a good whack or thumping was understandable, given the tough shame proof exterior of some students. 

Our Hindi teacher used to call us “chikne ghade” (smooth claypots made of a special non-sticky exterior), specifically in reference to our utterly shameless acts of repeating the same mistakes without remorse. (Chikne Ghade implied the water that fell washed over without seeping in even a teeny weeny bit).

Our Geometry teacher was particularly concerned about our future and conceded that we didn’t have the character to make it through high school, leave alone our careers. She would sneak in unannounced on the class, with a notebook in her hand, one eye out on unsuspecting students, challenging the student’s conscience to use any free lectures to concentrate on studying rather than sketching anatomical or other figures at the back of the notebooks. While our newly appointed PE teacher didn’t have a clue about teaching, or PE, or anything interesting in particular, it was upon us to utilise the 35-40 minutes to the best of our abilities. So we got back to chiding, or shaming or making a mockery of anyone that caught our fancy. Girls were not spared either and often a few even joined in the fun.

I remember our day used to start with a rather long and arduous prayer and communication session. There was a prayer, a hymn, a short story, thought for the day, national anthem, birthday songs and famous last words. (Ok! I made up the famous last words bit). It dragged on close to 18-20 minutes where students were left standing (no one was allowed to sit for the entire session, unless you were sick or dumb enough to risk it). Every class had to volunteer to do this in turns and it wasn't limited to the classroom itself. Thanks to the geniuses who set up the microphone and speaker system at school, you had to broadcast your golden voice, one that didn’t exactly coming out pouring honey at 7 in the morning, to the entire building. There was a set schedule to these sessions, or so we were led to believe, because every Monday or so, the headmistress would come running in to our class (closest to her office) and randomly pick 3 students, one to recite the anthem and prayer, one to make up a short story and one to inspire the building inhabitants with the thought of the day.

One of the nicest things I learnt in school was to use bullet points to answer questions in an exam paper. I thought it saved us heaps of time, because you could think concisely and to the point, without letting your mind drift into hibernation. Our History/Geography teacher actually encouraged us to use this technique, I think primarily because it was easy for her to decipher students’ mastery of alien decryption at such a young age, which they passed off as their handwriting. I was impressed however, because it actually got a lot easier to answer questions and often got a lot of people good marks (almost as close to 100%) in subjects such as History and Geography. Of course, it also helped that these students were brilliant nevertheless and knew a lot of stuff anyway, bullet point usage or not.

I was deeply mystified with selection of some students as Prefects or Class Monitors or the highly ambiguous “Discipline-in-charge”. I could understand and appreciate the role of Prefect/s and Class Monitors, but the term “Discipline-in-charge” was as vague as it gets. They had no set portfolio, no jurisdiction and certainly no pattern of setting any precedents whatsoever. They wandered around aimlessly, snubbed people the wrong way by pointing people to their badges and usually were miles away from any discipline themselves. They were randomly selected and were mostly set upon to handle crowd control if the chaos got of hand. More often than not, they were the reason behind chaos and confusion. Their place in the Prefect/Monitor hierarchy was unclear and they certainly didn’t give a rodent’s backside about this.
I should know. I was one of this breed.

To be continued…

Friday, 18 January 2013

Down Memory Lane - The Hero 332

A few months back, I stepped in to the meeting room, with my trusty old notebook and ink/fountain pen (yes, you read it correctly) in my hand, and settled into a chair.
One of my colleagues who was sitting just across the table squinted at the pen and when the penny finally dropped, with the most curious of expressions drawn across her face, she said "Is that a China pen in your hands?". Fact was, it was. What was even more surprising was that someone actually recognised it as such.
(Note: As the pen originally comes from The Shanghai Hero Pen factory, it is commonly referred to as the China pen or the Hero pen).

My love affair with the Hero 332 began way back in primary school. My mom got me one of these when school year started. Thankfully, back then, the choice was limited and it didn't drive Mom crazy to source a simple pen that did the job. After a few failed attempts to get the right coloured ink for the pen, my grandfather suggested I use the Blue-Black variety of ink. Black looked good, but school authorities had absolute rules on the use of black ink and blue seemed too bubble-gum like. Blue-black it was then.

Given that we were unable to use those terrible ball-point pens until our SSC year, ink pens were all the rage. And for good reason as well. Ball-point pens have a consistency like a certain middle-order Indian cricketer these days. Shocking and embarrasing. Wonder what sets the SSC as any different to other years. Any year, we were writing/scribbling away the same amount of stuff anyways. Anyways, I digress.

Everything about the Hero pen suggests class. The plain-yet-elegant looks, the fine nib, the smooth ink flow. Although it took a good 7-8 dips into the ink pot to quench it's thirst, it was well worth it. From the day I started using the pen, it has performed exactly the same. No big blotches, no sudden spills, no cranky abrasions or designs on paper.

Photo courtesy: Google images

I've used the pen for writing 3 hour exams. I've even used it for 3 hour exams, writing native languages. I may have broken into a sweat thinking of the answers to the questions, but the pen didn't. It kept going and creating wonderful designs on paper. Friends have begged, borrowed and stolen other pens I've owned, but I've fought tooth and nail (and nib) to keep in my possession this little beauty.
I also penned (for the lack of a better word) various essays at school, including 'Autobiography of a pen' using the Hero. The essay told the story of a simple but ambitious pen and it's journey through the scrolls of life.

I stuck with the Hero throughout junior college, only occasionally drifting to the ball-point cousins for limited usage.

I put the Hero to its test at University and it graduated with merits.

I looked back at my colleague and nodded in the affirmative. Yes, this was the simple, yet stunningly effective China pen that I use. Even today. Regularly.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Down Memory Lane - JAM

I had just moved to Pune for my Bachelor's and like any another youth of the 90's, was still reeling under the swamp of boy/ girl bands, their collective attempts at singing and commendable efforts at keeping their mousse-set hair in one place.

Soon after, I joined Fergusson college and was promptly seen loitering around the campus, usually guided by a hungry stomach.

On one of these hunger-driven days, when I was reasonably close to the Goodluck Restaurant, at the traffic lights, I spotted a colourful rag at the local news stand.

JAM - Just Another Magazine. It had everything a collegian needed to know – career tips, funny articles, spoofs, gossip and the ubiquitous glossy wallpaper (centre-spread).

What started off with a 5 minute flirt, flicking through the mag, ended up being one of the most personally satisfying stints working with them.

Post a few quick exchanges of emails; I became a Bureau Chief – essentially a not-so-secretive eyes-and-ears of the organisation, responsible for reporting any gossip, happenings and events on the college campus.

This reporting took on a range of topics and I certainly didn’t stop at anything specific. My first small write up was about a popular chai stall outside Kamala Nehru Park, followed by a review of an ice cream shop on Fergusson College Road. Just so that people don’t figure out my pattern (stomach-driven), I also reported about other things such as this:
Terminal Terror

Whilst doing my writing, I also connected somehow with the JAM man in Pune – Carson Dalton. He was JAM’s go-to man in Pune. Not without reason as well. He was and is probably the coolest guy I have come across. Not only did he write for JAM, he was also their sales/marketing/business development unit in Pune. He offered me the role of distributing JAM throughout Pune and I gladly accepted this offer.

For over a year after that, every fortnight, I’d visit the cargo area at the Pune railway station, haggle/plead/beg/offer chai to/bribe (more or less in that order) the Cargo Officer to release the magazine gunny sacks that often shipped from Mumbai without the consignment docket, collect around 200 copies of the mag, load them on my trusty old Kinetic Honda and start making the delivery rounds throughout Pune. (When I say Pune, it does not mean literally all of Pune. JAM was available at only 20-30 stores, mostly near the Camp area, Deccan and a select few in Kothrud).

My bedroom walls bore testimony to my allegiance to JAM, via a rather curious and eclectic mix of glossy wallpapers of celebrities, names of whom I’d rather not disclose and further embarrass myself!

It was a thrilling experience dealing with the guys stocking JAM throughout Pune. Starting from a cuppa chai with the Railway Station news agent, to the 2 gorgeous (and flirty) ladies at the Hallmark gift shop opposite Wadia’s, the incredible old woman on MG Road, just around the corner from Westend (she sold the maximum number of copies each fortnight), to the family business outside Sagar Arcade. A few had no clue as to how the distribution worked, but still played well enough when it came to the cash.
Along with offers of endless cups of chai at each news stand, to lively banter about cricket, movies, to the business end of the magazine swap (the part where the shopowner and I tried making sense of the number of copies sold, any owings etc), the delivery round was full of experience.

On a few occasions, I’d have company, with the JAM man Carson, joining me for some chinwag and we’d usually finish our delivery round with a King Burger at its namesake joint on East Street.

In my last year of graduation, my batchmates at Fergusson got together and banged their heads at designing departmental sweatshirt/jumper and I had this to say:
Department Tees

All throughout the last year of my Bachelor’s, we were subjected to some really interesting professors, prompting me to come up with this write up (anonymously, of course):
Nutty Profs

This stint with JAM, and being in good books with the JAM man, I suppose, also got me free entry into some really cool places and events – pubs to organise JAM events, music concerts, quizzes, that sort of stuff. Plus, it was also a handy gig to try and impress the ladies. Ahem.

With growing personal and educational commitments, came lessening of this wonderful association and I handed over the distribution/delivery to another enthusiastic bloke 2 years later.
For me personally, it was more than Just Another Magazine.