Wednesday, August 31, 2005

And yet another stolen bicycle....

If Harry Potter series can be stretched over seven episodes and Star Wars over six ( if I haven’t got the figure wrong), won’t you permit me to publish my bicycle trilogy ? Here’s the third part.

This incident happened in the early seventies. We lived in one of those narrow lanes in Mylapore,Madras. Our neighbour was a policeman who had seven children of assorted shapes, sizes and age.

Kids of today are so used to seeing the full-panted cops of today on their gleaming mobikes and sporting their smart caps. The policemen of the seventies were positively comical to look at. They were dressed in sharply creased, bell-bottomed shorts, had pointed funny-looking topis on their heads and carried wooden lathis in their hands. They rode bicycles..

Back to our neighbour. I don’t know how good he was as a policeman, but he was a terror at home. His seven kids used to shake and shiver in his presence and hardly utter a word. Discipline was enforced strictly in the house and the slightest sign of rebellion crushed mercilessly. There was a set routine, which had to be followed unquestioningly. Deviations would simply not be tolerated, not that they were ever attempted.

We never got to see the policeman leave his house as he probably got out very early in the morning. But my sister and I would be waiting on the balcony at 6 pm everyday, to watch the “ritual” next door, as the policeman returned home.

The grand ceremony that took place everyday, with clockwork precision, similar to the Change of Guards at the Buckingham Palace, went like this.. The policeman would ride his bicycle home. A few metres ahead, he would ring the cycle bell, to sound a general alert to his family. On this Pavlovian cue, all the seven kids, would come running out of the house. The eldest would collect the bicycle from the father and park it in the small verandah. The second would pick up his topi and hang it on the nail near the entrance. The third would take the lathi and keep it on the bench, next to the parked bicycle. The fourth would help him remove his shirt and gently hang it on the coat-stand. The fifth would collect the shorts carefully (as the sharp crease could cut the fingers), the sixth would hold out a lungi to him and help him wrap it around too and the seventh would stand at attention with a glass of water and give it to him, as soon as he had put on his lungi.

So, a quick recap of the story so far. Mylapore. Narrow lane. Sis and I. Neighbour, a cop. Cop’s seven kids. Cop strict. Home 6 pm sharp. On bicycle. Seven kids in same sequence collect bike, topi, lathi, shirt, pointed shorts and hand over lungi, water. Same routine every day. All right, all right.You got the plot.

So, this ritual went on, every single day, for many, many years. Boys became adults and girls metamorphosed, as only girls can, into lovely women. Yet this routine never changed at the policeman’s house…

One day, disaster struck the family.

The policeman’s bicycle was stolen. He had to come home walking !

The family had never seen this sight before. As it always happens to people who are used to rigid schedules, they found themselves completely disoriented and lost at these changed circumstances.

The eldest, robbed off his first-born rights of taking over the bicycle, insisted on collecting the topi instead. This was strongly resisted by the second-born, who in a desperate maneuver tried to reach for the father’s lathi. In the pandemonium that ensued, the third and the fourth-born found themselves fighting over the shorts and shirt with the fifth and sixth-born. The policeman realized that he had handed over his shorts but the lungi was nowhere in sight. Nor his customary glass of water. He was simply caught underwears and water-less.

At this stage, I regret that, in the interest of veracity, I must break the news that this was the beginning of the split-up of the cop’s family. Having tasted the joy of indiscipline for the first time in their lives, the seven kids wouldn’t have enough of the newfound freedom. The family broke up and the seven kids went off in different directions and settled down, each clinging to his or her core-competence. The first to start a cycle-hire shop, the second to sell hats, the third to make walking-sticks of the ornate variety, the fourth and fifth to set up a tailoring unit specializing in shorts and shirts, the sixth to join the firm that did the wholesale marketing of Sangu-mark lungis and the seventh to peddle Bisleri water bottles at the Central Station. The policeman has retired from active service, has joined a Security agency and is a watchman in one of the ancient buildings that abound in Mylapore.

So, boys and girls, the summary . Cop has bicycle. Family remains united. Cop loses bicycle. Family disintegrates.

The stolen bicycle made all the difference.

Another stolen bicycle

I heard this story on a BBC radio program.

In the tiny village of Glaslough, Ireland, populated by a few hundred people, there lived a man called Patrick. One day, Patrick lost his favourite bicycle and was completely heartbroken. The village policeman tried his best to trace the missing bicycle, but to no avail.

Like most Irishmen, Patrick was quite a religious person and never missed the Sunday sermon at the local Church. On one such visit, he narrated his tale of woe and misery to Father Murphy who was the chief pastor.

Father Murphy was quite sympathetic and told Patrick not to lose hope. He would nab the culprit . His game plan was this. The following Sunday, he would deliver to his entire congregation a moving sermon on the Ten Commandments, which would be loaded with enough punch to inspire and motivate even the most stone-hearted . He would enumerate the commandments in the same order that God handed over to Moses on Mount Sinai. By the time he came down to the seventh commandment, namely, “Thou shalt not steal “, the bicycle thief would be so guilt-ridden and have his vitals so gnawed by remorse, that he would stick out in the crowd. Patrick had to just watch out for the guy who had the furtive look when Father Murphy read out the seventh commandment.

Sure enough, there was a big gathering on Sunday and Father Murphy, true to his word, gave it the works. Some say that he delivered the best sermon ever heard in Glaslough, for a long, long time. He placed particular emphasis on the seventh commandment, pausing there an extra second, for added effect.

At the end of the sermon, Father Murphy came down the pulpit and asked Patrick eagerly, “ Did you spot the thief ?”

Patrick smiled sheepishly and replied, “ No Father, I didn’t have to wait till the seventh commandment. When you had reached the sixth commandment, namely, - 'Thou shalt not commit adultery' - I remembered where I had parked my bicycle”.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Our heroes !

As a nation, we face an acute shortage of genuine heroes - at least the ones cast in the western mould. You know the type, strongest, tallest, swiftest, wealthiest, etc. As demand exceeds supply,we are willing to clutch at any straw, so to speak, and eulogise the most mediocre of achievements. Or, at the slightest provocation, go back to our ‘glorious’ history, selective in our choice of period and events, to delude ourselves that past performance is a guarantee for future success.

And who or what are our role models ? In sports, we still talk of our 1983 World cup victory in cricket, of P.T.Usha missing the bronze medal by a whisker in 1984 at Los Angeles ( in a truncated field, in an event boycotted by the Russian and Communist Bloc countries) or of “The Flying Sikh”- an epithet that only we would confer on an athlete who finished fourth in his race.Sania Mirza making it into the top 50 or reaching the third round of the Australian Open get such hype and mileage in the media as to embarrass even the less-objective and more-charitable reader or viewer.

Six decades after he departed from the scene, we still, at the drop of a hat,need to invoke Gandhi’s name. We romanticize and mythologise Netaji’s heroism and valour, based on folklore and unsubstantiated stories. With not too many sportsmen around to distribute our acclaim, we go into gleeful raptures at the very mention of the name Sachin Tendulkar.We sing paens of praise, idolise him and elevate him to the level of a demi-God . When we need some diversion, we turn to our celluloid heroes for help. The distinction between real-life and reel-life gets blurred and we wallow in an illusionary world, desperately clinging on to our few and far-flung heroes.

But,is there such a vacuum ? Don’t we have anything to showcase ? To be fair, we do. Flip through the Guinness book of Records and you will come across names of Indians who hold the records for sporting the longest beard, biggest moustache, longest nails and for the thickest face make-up ( Kathakali dancers) . We even have one for the maximum distance covered by 'rolling' on the floor. Yes, these are the indigenously-grown heroes, with those unique skills that are homespun and quintessentially Indian.These are the events where Indians reign supreme, having truly and indubitably conquered the rest of the world.

Alas, dark clouds are looming even over this field. In our misplaced complacency, we believed that we dominated this turf. I just read a newsitem last week that an American has entered the Guiness Book of records with the longest eyebrow hair (9.5 cm). I threw up my hands in righteous indignation, when I read this. This was a record that was rightfully ours, but was not to be. The last, nay only Indian bastion has indeed fallen.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The stolen bicycle

My daughter’s bicycle was stolen, one day, from our house. Dreading the red-tape, I chose not to file a complaint with the police and accepted the state of bikeless existence, philosophically.

But, Life –as we all know- has a knack of throwing up unexpected surprises. Two months after the incident, there was a knock on the door. It was the police ! With the thief in tow ! The serial de-biker had been caught red-handed recently and he was pointing out the several houses whose owners he had stripped off their bicycles.

“Would I be good enough to come down to the Teynampet police station to identify the bicycle ?” asked the policeman, belching out the words in the manner unique to cops.

”Sure” I said, thrilled at the prospect of delighting my daughter as soon as she was back from her Maths, Science and Sanskrit tuitions and imagining her clapping her hands in girlish glee.

I reached the station in less than 15 minutes, identified the gleaming bike and got on to it to drive it home.

“Not so fast , “ said the cop, spitting out his betel-nut and blowing his nose at the same time. . “You need to file an FIR first for our records, and add an explanation why you had failed to register a complaint for two months”
I started to fill up the form , Anything, I thought, to please my darling daughter. Having done it, I asked if I could have the keys please ?

“No way “ said the constipated cop, his flatulence acting up. “ You need to come to the Saidapet Court tomorrow. There are procedures we need to follow..

So, the next day I found my way to the seedy Saidapet court, informing my office that I would be late by an hour or so.

An hour passed. Two. But no sign of my bicycle. Business worth crores of rupees was slipping away at my office, while I was aimlessly whiling away my time on the verandahs of law courts, for a bicycle whose book-value was less than Rs 1000, I thought. I confronted the constipated cop finally and enquired what was happening. He let out a gas-loaded burp and then explained that I needed to file a petition before the Hon’ Court pleading for the release of my cycle and added that I would be well-advised to appoint a lawyer to write this out on stamp paper. The lawyer would charge Rs 250/- for these efforts and the stamp paper would cost Rs 100/-

“Here’s the money” I said in disgust, “now can you get on with it?”

After a few hours, the petition was ready and duly stamped.

“Now what ?” I asked

“ Be patient. You have to appear before the judge, only when your turn comes”

After disposing off half a dozen cases involving pickpockets, bootleggers, pimps and other scums of this earth, the judge summoned me to the witness box and asked me to solemnly swear that the bicycle was genuinely mine and that whatever I had stated in my petition was true to the best of my knowledge and belief. This I confirmed with all sincerity and honesty and asked, “Can I leave now and take the bicycle too?”

The judge admonished me sternly for the impertinence and, for a minute, I got this sinking feeling that he was going to have me beheaded.

What I was required to do, he told me, if I wanted to take the bike home, was to execute a personal bond for Rs 1000/-, promising to return the bicycle back to the Court if a trial later found the accused not guilty. How the low-criminal who had already admitted to the offence would ever be found not-guilty was more than I could imagine, but I agreed to do as per the instructions of the Hon’ Court and now, for God’s sake, would they let me take my bicycle home ?

I, of course, had presumed that the bicycle was parked next to the judge’s chambers, they would give it to me in a grand ceremony and it would be a simple matter of pushing it into the car’s boot and driving home, where my daughter was, no doubt, waiting with her nose to the window pane.

No such luck. The bicycle was not in Saidapet. I had to go back to Teynampet police station to pick it up. The constipated cop kept scratching his head in the time-honoured tradition of cops, hinting that some currency notes had to exchange hands, if he had to part with the keys and send me home. I had run out of change and the constipated cop wouldn’t accept credit cards. So, I had to give him a crisp 100-Rupee note to coax the keys out of him.

Finally, at 8 PM that evening, my daughter got her bicycle back. Lucky girl.

The homicidal bibliophile

My wife ( hereinafter referred to as “She” to protect my identity) is a voracious reader of horror books and an avid watcher of horror movies. “She” hand-picks only those books that contain, not later than on the second page, a vivid description of a disemboweled corpse lying in a pool of blood. Horror movies must pack enough gory scenes, scary shrieks and other spine-chilling special effects.

A fortnight ago, I came across a newsitem which said that a 32-year old woman in Patna had poisoned her husband, inspired by a scene in an Hindi movie. This made me panic. If watching one movie could inspire this illiterate Bihari woman and turn her into a murderess, imagine the effect of all those hundreds of horror books that “She” had been devouring for so many years. It was evident that I was a potential and a definite target. I had to be on my guard all the time. Ceaseless vigilance was called for.

Last Monday, she pulled out two drumsticks, from the fridge. I froze. “She” had once told me a story, written by Roald Dahl, about a housewife who had knocked out her husband, using a frozen piece of lamb leg and then called the cops. Asking them to wait in the drawing room, she deep-fried the leg of the lamb and served it to the cops, thus destroying the only evidence they could have had. Was “She” going to knock me out likewise with the drumsticks and destroy the evidence in Murungaikkai Sambar ? I calmed down only after seeing the drumstick being cut into smaller pieces, which greatly reduced their potential as a murder weapon.

A week back, I had locked myself in the bathroom when I heard the pressure cooker blowing off steam in the kitchen. “Wait a minute” I thought, “ was it really the pressure cooker or was it a hissing snake ?” Did not the character in Conan Doyle’s “ Case of the Speckled Band” introduce a live snake from a tiny opening in the locked room, to poison the victim and leave no clues whatsoever ? Was “She” trying to do the same to me ? Where would “She” get hold of a snake ? I got out of the bathroom after “She” shouted that “She” would break open the door, if I didn’t come out fast enough to drop the daughter in school.

Two nights back “She” snuggled up to me and seductively cooed, “ We need to have a holiday, just you and me, far away , in a quiet place. Let’s take one of those long train journeys. Leave the kids with the grandmother”. “Ha”, my senses alerted me, “She” is trying to lull me into a sense of false security and lead me to a lonely spot. Does “She” think that I had not heard of Ray Bradbury’s story about a man on a train between Moscow and Vladivostok, getting down at a station in the middle of nowhere, so that he could meet some stranger and kill him and leave no trace at all . Nobody would suspect him as they couldn’t attribute any motive . Was “She” trying to take me to some such lonely spot to bump me off?

This morning, as I was leaving for office, “She” patted me fondly and lovingly adjusted my tie-knot. As if I would be deceived. This was straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie, “Frenzy” where the serial murderer strangulated all his victims with his neck tie……

I hear the phone ring now. I am not going to pick it up. Was it not the movie ‘Dial M for murder “, in which the villain had hired a killer to enter his house, hide behind the phone and choke the villain’s wife when she came to answer the call ?

I told you. Ceaseless vigilance is called for.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Panchatantra Tale

Ganesh was a creative genius, a brilliant innovator, a compulsive tinkerer or a gizmo-geek, depending on how one viewed his obsession with gadgets . He was constantly closeted in his workshop trying to make a meaningful whole of the various parts and components that littered the place. He passionately believed that everything in life must have more than one use and endeavoured to inject varying degrees of multi-functionality into all his inventions.

Alas, good inventors seldom are good entrepreneurs and Ganesh struggled to make a commercial success of his creations. Once, he toiled for days together and came out with an indigenous version of the Swiss Army knife that consisted of a corkscrew, bottle-opener, knife, scissors, screw driver, inch tape and a monkey spanner. The merciless market rejected this contraption outright . Inscrutable indeed can be the behaviour of the Customer and one can do nothing but solemnly bow to His diktat

Undeterred by this setback, Ganesh went back to his laboratory and swung into action again. This time he designed a wrist watch, which was awesome in its complexity. It had a built-in mobile phone, digital camera, torch light, thermometer, sphygmanometer, FM radio, alarm clock and a miniature micro-wave oven to make one corn pop at a time. Unfortunately, it too bombed at the box-office as the finicky, irrational customers insisted that the wrist watch must also be able to tell the time.- which need Ganesh had not provided for

Now, Ganesh’s wife was getting impatient and would not put up with this any more. She lashed out at Ganesh for sitting on his butt all day, tinkering with his toys and not doing anything worthwhile to fetch some income for the family. She gave him a week’s notice to deploy his time and resources profitably, warning him of dire consequences if he failed to do so. She told him in no uncertain terms that she would use his Army knife to skin him alive or his microwave oven to cook one finger or a toe of his at a time, if he persisted with his madness.

Ganesh was stung by the accusation that he was sitting on his butt all day . He was determined to prove her wrong and made a mental note to begin work on an integrated model consisting of a pedometer (to be attached to his legs to measure the number of steps he walked every day) and a piezo-electric sensor glued to his trouser-seat ( which would be connected to a timer to record the number of hours he spent sitting on his butt ) and a calibrated differentiator to display the net energy he burnt every day. He was lost thus in his reverie when Serendipity smiled on him.

A farmer visiting the city had chanced to pick up Ganesh’s multi-purpose knife from a roadside dustbin and immediately appreciated its potential as an ear-poker, a nose-digger, a back-scratcher, a lice-picker , a tongue-scraper, nail-cleaner and a tooth de-stainer, all packaged in one. Soon, the word spread as it always does in our villages . There was a huge demand for the product and Rural India’s need was insatiable. The knife was re-christened as Kisan Ka Katthi and positioned by the FMCGs as the farmer’s inseparable companion. Gadget Ganesh had finally arrived. He also thus managed to keep his skin and his fingers and his toes intact.

Ganesh is now engaged in designing , for his wife, a new multi-purpose dress which can be worn as a sari , or as a salwar kameez by the simple expedient of folding it inward and twisting it to form a Mobius strip or as a kimono merely by tugging a couple of strategically-concealed strings. His wife is a very happy woman.

The lesson to you, boys and girls who want to pursue a career in marketing, is to anticipate the unarticulated needs of your customers. Learn to do this and success is yours.