Monday, February 28, 2011

Life and soul

I was in Calcutta some time back, my second visit in less than a month, and third in a span of six months. Which is sorta strange, because before that, I hadn't visited in more than two years.

I love Calcutta (in small doses, that is), but I can't really claim to know the city. Visits are too fleeting, and usually too much about family commitments, for me to ever have got the chance to get to know this city properly.

Those two years away, however, consisted of several work-related trips to Chennai. And every time I would visit Chennai, I would be struck by its similarity to Calcutta. The airports are identical, both cities have a sleepy, old-world feel to them, the narrow roads and flyovers in both seem to be fitted between two rows of old, rambling houses - you know? And in both cities, except for the odd pocket or area, you don't see nothing but tall buildings covered in glass.

Which brings me to a major grouse I have. What is this need to build office buildings covered in glass? Every where I look, a new office building is being constructed, covered in glass windows from top to bottom. While I assume the architects, in some corner of their hearts, wanted people to go "Ooooooh" on seeing these building, all I can think is how needlessly astronomical those window-cleaning bills must be.

And these buildings have no character, no soul to them, you know? They seem so... lifeless.

Whereas the nice, old-fashioned buildings with brick and concrete exteriors always seem so much more welcoming, elegant, and human.

Every time I visit CP, for example, I am struck by the Statesman Building. I had once tweeted that it's one of those buildings you have a love affair with from a distance. As Sahil had responded, you've never been inside, don't know what it's really like, but it catches your fancy every single time.

And seeing this photo (obtained from here - I love this site) a few days back reminded me of this old grouse. I have never understood why all modern buildings seem to be covered in glass. It's weird at night, when you can look in and see late workers at their cubicles. And there's just no charm to them at all.

You know?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The story of one day

I woke up at 3.45 AM on Tuesday morning, to catch the early morning flight back from Kolkata to Delhi. My flight took off on time, but landed in Delhi 90 minutes late due to bad weather. Which was actually kinda awesome, because that extra hour of sleep is the only reason I was alert enough for the events that subsequently unfolded.

I had to head to a client site in Okhla directly from the airport to help run a development centre, a fact I was informed of only Monday evening. It's a darn good thing I had carried an extra white salwar-kameez and my favourite orange dupatta to wear in Kolkata if the weather was nice enough.

A friend came back on the same flight as me, and I went with her to the pre-paid taxi counter at T3. The Meru Cabs counter seemed to be shut, so she queued up at the counter that's run by the Delhi traffic cops. I was leaning against the side of the counter, and so could see the entire conversation. Her billed amount came to 340, so she handed over a 500 rupees note. The guy at the counter took it, placed it below the counter, then picked up a 100 rupees note and gave it to her saying, you gave me only 100. She apologized and took it back, and handed him another 500 rupees note. I was about to protest, when she turned to me and asked "Wait, didn't I give him a 500? I didn't have any 100 rupees notes, remember?" I nodded, so she turned back to the guy at the counter and said the same to him. He looked at her, shrugged, and gave her back a 500 rupees note and the correct change.

Simplest scam in the world I tell you.

The development centre I then headed to went off just like any other centre I have been a part of - with all the panels running a good two hours behind schedule, except one, which was running four hours behind schedule. We finally wrapped up at 9.30 PM, as opposed to the scheduled end time of 6.30 PM. Five of us colleagues, all women, got into a cab to get home to Gurgaon.

I was sitting in the front seat of the Xylo we were travelling in, snuggled under the spare shawl I was carrying, on the phone with the father who, poor thing, was waiting for me to get home with my suitcase keys so he could pack for the early morning flight he was taking Wednesday morning. As we approached a traffic light, I suddenly saw, about ten feet ahead of us, a man on a bike go crashing into the truck that had braked suddenly in front of him, and fall off his bike.

We stopped our car on the side and went to see how badly he was hurt. Two colleagues got off the car to go see him, I stayed with the car, while another started calling for an ambulance. Within minutes, a crowd of at least 50 men collected, with everyone giving suggestions on what to do and where to take him. The man was bleeding profusely, and my dupatta was taken to try and stem the flow. My colleague who was trying to call for an ambulance was getting increasingly exasperated - "Press one for cashless transactions, Press two for..."

We finally decided to take him into our car and take him to the hospital down the road - it would be much faster than waiting for anything to show up. And then our cab driver refused to let us take him into the car: "Meri gaadi kharab ho jayegi." When we finally convinced him, we turned to the crowd and asked if someone would come with us to help. Not a single man agreed.

We gave up, and got him into the car, and headed to the hospital. The man was somewhat conscious by now, and we got him to give us his wife's number so we could call her. When we got through to her and told her her husband had had an accident, her first reaction was "he was drinking, wasn't he? I told him not to drink so much! He must have gone to that shop to drink!" We finally got her to calm down enough to hear us out, at which point she panicked and handed the phone over to the man's brother. We had reached the hospital by this time, and the phone was handed to me so directions to the hospital could be given. Turns out my Hindi's a lot worse than I thought it was.

The hospital was a tiny, government-run hospital, run by doctors who looked more like college ruffians. But they were nice, and actually concerned about what had happened. While my colleagues stayed with the man, I went back to the car to find his phone, which had fallen somewhere. Just as I found it, his second brother called, asking what had happened, and where to come. After speaking to him, I went and gave the phone inside, and then some of us took the car back to the accident site to try and see what we could do with the bike.

The crowd, which had completely vanished by now, had placed the bike at the side of the road. We collected the keys, contemplated calling a tow truck or something, and finally decided to leave it there for now. Just as we reached the hospital, his brother showed up as well. We explained what the doctors were saying, handed over the phone and keys, told him exactly where the bike was, and left.

My dupatta got left behind.

As we drove back to Gurgaon, our cab driver tried to explain to us that it wasn't so much his new car he was worried about, but the thought of "authorities" getting involved. Do I blame those 50 men there for not coming with us? Not entirely. Had I been travelling alone, instead of with four other women, would I have stopped at all? Extremely unlikely. The only reason I was brave enough to do anything, in a city like Delhi, was because I had four other women with me, and a cab driver who we've known and trusted for years. Had the police got involved, the chances of me returning home in time to see my father leave for the airport would've been highly unlikely. Had we gone to a bigger government hospital, the chances of that man receiving any kind of medical attention in a timely manner would've been slim to zero. Had we gone to a private hospital, the chances of his getting even a stretcher to come out of the car would be practically zilch.

This is the kind of country I, nay, we live in.