Internet is fun, but not on ‘fone’

I thank  IndiBlogger and Vodafone.  For they set me thinking of  god,  saithan,  fun and the Internet,  all  in the same thread.  I think the Internet is  God,  if only because  I don’t understand either.  Moreover ,  the Lord,  they say, works in mysterious ways.  So does the Internet.  Our God,  we believe,  is omnipresent;   so is e-mail network.  And then isn’t  it  a godly attribute to produce miracles ?  By my book,  the dot com can do us  wonders.

It  had me reconnected with a friend I thought I had lost over 50 years back.  The Web facilitated  my  blog-to-blog  dialogue  with T R Kini,   aging  friend ,  ailing,   and living way away on another hemisphere.   In our younger days we  had  spent a couple of years in London of the 60s.   Kini is  now down with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  Bound to wheel chair life can be excruciatingly confining.  Kini’s window to the world around  is his  Net connected computer screen.  We blogged about the years we spent together,  about the Swinging Sixties,  our travels overland when hitching rides  was the youth’s preferred mode of cross-country  travel.  My friend Kini, who hitched rides through Pakistan,  Iran, Turkey to Paris and beyond,  wrote of his vintage experiences in our blog-to-blog.

I re-discovered  Irshad via a blogpost I did after watching a movie on TV.  Featured in this German movie  I recognized a friend I had lost way back in 1960s in New Delhi. We used to meet on a daily basis at Janpath coffee-house.  It was quite a thrill, discovering your coffee-house friend on a TV screen.I wanted to get in touch. Googling Irshad Panchatan produced a Wikipedia entry that didn’t help much.So I blogged –  Irshad  Mia, where are you?   It was my way of sending a message in the bottle, hoping my friend,  Net browsing, might happen by my blog.  He didn’t,  but Irshad’s daughter did –  find my message-in-the-bottle and conveyed it to her father in Berlin. Internet can be fun,  even for those uninitiated into live chat, video games,  web streaming and what-have-you.  I read about a Vizag-based web-casting agency that  streams live a wedding in your family.   Sharing a family event live with out-of-town friends and relatives is fun.

Early earthlings  worshiped  the  Sun, the moon,  rain and wind.  Ancient Greeks had god or goddeses for earth and the sky,  beauty and fertility,  war and violence. If we have a  goddess for fun,  we would call her the Internet. Not an unmixed fun,  perhaps.  For the Internet also serves  miliants as an instrument to promote terrorism . Terrorist training manuals in PDF format in German, English and Arabic,  were among the digital documents  they recovered from Osama bin Laden’s safe house in Abbottabad,  Pakistan. Terror plots relating to Mumbai-style attacks targeting European cities,  and al-Qaeda road map for future operations were found in digital storage device and memory cards.  And mobile phone,  far from being a source of fun,  can be lethal in the hands of terrorists.  Bad guys in movies use cell phone as trigger device to blow up places.

A mobile,  going by promos and Vodafone  commercials,  is no longer used for basic communication  by way of a telephoic talk. Instead,  it is marketed as a fun,  in-thing,  with which you listen to music, take photos, play games,  send  SMS, check mail, and trade missed calls with those you want to avoid talking. Writing on the death of the phone call ,  Clive Thompson reckons this  generation ‘doesn’t make phone calls,  because everyone is in constant, lightweight contact in so many other ways:  texting,  chatting,  and social network messaging’.

Gone are the days when we engaged in conversation the  people we met  at railway platforms  ,  we  made friends on travel.  In buses, during train travel, we find youngsters into their own trip,   meddling with their mobile  to check mail, watch video ,  play games and whatever else they do with that thing in their palms . Even elders on morning walk  nowadays seem to have forgotten the old world  grace of greeting those  walking by,  or  the art of striking a park-bench conversation with strangers.  Instead,  we keep our ears plugged in to mobile music mode.

The internet on mobile  isn’t just a no-fun thing ;  it is unsociable to plug  in  your ears to a  mobile,  utterly unconcerned about the happenings around you.  If  Internet is  fun,  do we need to have it on call,  and round the clock ?  In our addiction to the digital kind we may well be losing out on the fun we  can stumble on,  in real world,  at the park,  on our way to work.    I am all for fun on the Net, but a mobile  shouldn’t be so packed in with  ‘fun’  features that we lose sight of  real  point of a mobile –  to make/take  a call on the move.
The Internet,  in my book,  isn’t fun on any  ‘fone’.   And I wouldn’t fault Vodafone,  if my post is considered off-topic,  for the IndiBlogger contest on  How Internet is fun on your mobile’.

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Kabul calling

Mahindra’s   invitation to blog on my life-changing road trip took me back in time ,  to Kabul.  Not to the strife-torn Afghan city,  but a hippie-happy,  ‘wheeling-n-dealing’ Kabul of 1960s.  The place was then a bustling staging post for hippies,  hitch-hikers,  and adventure tourists from Europe,  heading East beyond Khyber Pass.

This was in 1967,  when I was 29,  unattached,  and doing Europe overland.  We were seven – a mixed group,  aged between 10 and 50 – traveling  in a 12-seater van on a London-Delhi run.  Because of a nationality issue with Pakistan,  Kabul turned out to be the end of the road for me.  Denied a visa to transit Pakistan,  I flew from Kabul to Amritsar.  Our tour organiser  Brian,  and two other Brits  in our group took the van through  Khyber Pass to  Peshawar,  Lahore,  crossing the  Wagha  border post into Amritsar.

Alone,  and on loose ends,  I spent four days in Kabul,  waiting for India flight.  Ariana Afghan Airlines  flew to Amritsar twice weekly. Not being a sight-seeing type  (didn’t even own a camera then)  I spent much time in cafes watching host of other young men and women doing the same thing.  Most of them were youth-hostellers on adventure trip,  ready with their back-pack,  hoping to hop on to  the first available vehicle offering a free ride to some place in the general direction they were heading.  Back-packers met in cafes to swap travel experience. Those heading towards Europe,  having done India and Pakistan,  exchanged notes with European hitch-hickers heading East.  Hitch-hicking was a done thing among youths those days.  Passing motorists had no hesitation in picking up back-packers thumbing a lift.  Some made good company,  on long road trips.  Cafes in Kabul town were peopled , besides back-packers,  with hippies,  unshaven,  unshowered,  and lingering over their coffee waiting for hash-dealer or a vacancy in the toilet.

The vehicles parked outside the cafes had European number plates,  and carried windshield placards offering a seat to London for 50 pounds sterling. Vans,  Land-Rovers,  and bigger coaches on their return trip from India usually had seats going.  In our van Brian was the only one doing the return road trip to London. He would have picked up a few fare-paying passengers on his home run to London. Brian,  then on his first trip East,  said he planned doing the trip on a regular basis as an overland tour operator. We were his first customers – two males,  three ladies and a 10-year-old schoolgirl.  And Brian found us through an ad.  he gave in the New Statesman personal column.

Joan,  a middle-aged wife of  Norfolk businessman,  bored with golf and country life,  wanted to do the world overland,  if only to be able to  send picture-postcards home  from exotic-sounding addresses.  Carol,  a student nurse from London,  joined us for ‘some fun and a bumpy ride’ to Bombay, from where she planned to take a ship to Sydney to join her Australian boyfriend. And then we had this young Indian couple,  with a 10-year-old girl,  heading home for a long vacation in Bombay. I believe they were close to the business family that owned the  ‘Parle’  brand of beverges.  Point is, even regular guys took to overland trips those days.  And Kabul of the hippy,  happier days  was  Mecca to road-trippers from all over Europe.  More on my Kabul,  a few paras. later.

To begin at the beginning,  my road trip started, as I mentioned,  with a New Statesman personnel column,  wherein Brian said he wanted to hear from those wanting to do India overland in May, 1967.  I was then a journalist on the staff of The Northern Echo, a daily published in  Darlington,  North-East England.  After three years in the UK  I thought it was time I returned home,  to turn a fresh  leaf in life.   And I couldn’t have imagined a better way to start on  it  than what the New Statesman ad. offered.

Advertiser Brian,  when I got in touch,  cautioned  that his trip was not for those who expected to be  ‘carried’  by others;  or those not prepared to accept some heat and discomfort;  and, definitely,  not for the type that didn’t ‘get along’  with strangers.  Brian bought a 12-seater van, funded,  presumably, through our contribution, as down-payment on a vehicle loan.  I can’t recall how much I paid,  but it was less than 100 pounds. This didn’t include our motel stay en route,  and visa fees for transiting Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia,  Bulgaria, Turkey,  Iran and Afghanistan.

Irony was , such exciting journey  across continent had a pretty pedestrian start,  at the parking lot of  London’s Waterloo station.  It was a Sunday morning, 7ish,  when the parking lot was deserted.  Brian was already there,  and waiting.  So was my friend Sushil Nangia  who had come to see me off.  I was surpised to see him there,  on a Sunday morning.  Besides being a dear friend one had to be bit of a nut to be up and about to see off someone,  so early on Sunday morning , when most of London preferred to stay in bed,  reading their favourite paper – be it the Sunday Times, Observer, The Sunday Express or the now-closed News of the World.  Nangia was, and still remains,  both –  a dear friend,  and bit of the N-word.

Our road trip involved two car-ferry crossings  – Dover-Ostend  on the English Channel,  and across Bosphorus   in Istanbul –  motoring across the Black Forest;   stopping by at picture postcard towns of  Munich, Cologne,  Baden-Baden,  Salzburg;  driving up  Kop Dagi Highland in Turkey;  crossing Iran,  taking in en route  Tehran, Tabriz, Mehshad and many other small towns to make it to the Afghan border post;  and from there to Herat,  through a moonscaped barren expanse to Khandahar and then,  to Kabul.

After four days on loose ends in Kabul, I couldn’t wait to leave town.  As I reached the airport I was told I didn’t have  ‘exit visa’. Immigration official suggested I get my passport stamped at the city police station, some 20 mins.away. He offered to  get me a taxi. I wondered if it was possible to get my passport exit-stamped at the police station and still make it back to the airport in time to catch the flight. The official at the immigration said it was worth a try –  for my flight wasn’t leaving for another hour.  A taxi-driver was ready to take me to the city and back.  And the next flight was three days away.  I had the decision made for me –  to make a dash to the city police station.  And the Kabul cabbie managed to bring me back to the airport some ten minutes before take-off.  As the Afghan Airlines Dakota took to the air with me in the plane,  I couldn’t help wonder if there wasn’t nexus between the airport counter staff and the cabbie.

A childhood with grandpa

When you grew up, or raised your own kids, did you have an experience which felt 100% real to you? So said the IndiBlogger e-mail announcing the Kissanpur contest.

I couldn’t recall right away any anecdote or childhood incident that fit the bill. It is easier to think of episodes in life that made you ‘feel good’, but are they necessarily the ones that give you the feel that they are real,100 percent ? The real-feel episode I share in this post wasn’t a feel-good one while I went through the phase. But as I look back on it, I feel it was as real as they come.

If it wasn’t for IndiBlogger e-mail, I wouldn’t have strayed so far down the memory lane, some 65 years back, to dredge up a childhood that I spent with  thatha (grandpa). This was in mid-1940s when I was less than 10 years old, living away from parents, with my grand-parents. When my parents moved to New Delhi – father being in a govt. job – they left me behind under the charge of grand parents in Coimbatore, Tamilnadu.
The primary school I went to,  in Telugu Brahmin St., was across the road from my grandparents’ place. Periappa – father’s elder brother – was the school head-master. Which wasn’t such a good arrangement. My uncle, a stern disciplinarian, was  a terror in the school. What was worse, besides being the school head, he took Class IV.  And, as his nephew, I wasn’t shown any favour, though they counted me among his favorites, off school. He made me stand up on the bench (a standard punishment) even for minor lapses such as talking to someone across bench,  trading match-box labels or cigarette-pack fronts  with classmates during school-hours.

At home grandpa, a retired cop,  ran our household of three – that is, grandma and me – a bit like a police training establishment. I had a time-table for meals, play, study, and sleep. The only grace-time (when I could do whatever I felt like) was when grandpa had his afternoon snooze. But then I was away in school, on week days, returning home at 4.30 p m. By which time grandpa would be up and about.
Grandmother, subject to her time-table, occasionally flouted it.  She would simply disappear next door – like they do for water-cooler breaks in offices –  for a mid-day gossip with neighbour; or she would linger longer than  warranted, at our door front chatting thayirkari (lady selling buttermilk door to door).

Grandma got away with it,  but I wouldn’t dare flout the routine, set for study and play. Regulation play-time started at 5 p m, when I escorted thatha to the neighbourhood Gandhi park. He took a designated park bench for listening the evening radio programme relayed all over the park through a public address system. I wasn’t obliged to listen to radio, though. Grandpa would let me try the swings, slides and things in the play area. An hour and quarter later, 6.30 pm,  we headed home.

Study time, under thatha’s watchful guidance, started at 7 p m. An hour later,  he retired for 15 mins.  to the kitchen for evening meals. On his return, 8.15 p m, ,thatha made his own bed  on a cement slab embedded in a corner of his room. What followed was 15 minutes of question time, when thatha would ask me something, anything,  from class lessons, lying in bed.  At 8.30 p m, as if on cue, patti (grandma) showed up at thatha’s door to summon me for meals. That was the signal to which I looked forward the whole evening; the signal that my day was done.

Such small delights made my day. Grandma, as most of the clan are,  was considerate. She would even let me sit in at after-dinner gossip session grandma held with neighbours at the door-front thinnai ( a cement platform to seat a gossip group).

I hate to admit this, my feelings were mixed – sad, if somewhat relieved –  when thatha passed away . At the age of 11  I rejoined  my parents in New Delhi