Saturday, November 12, 2011

Confront that surrealistically familiar stranger...

In an article written a few weeks back, Mr Sumedh Mungee wrote a piece on why he left India (again). His article received a fair bit of attention on blogs and the Interwebs. The article had over 400 comments on the NY Times site. Each of these comments had several "Recommends" too. Many of the comments spoke, sadly, to a "Good riddance, please do not come back" theme.

The reaction to a frank and honest article was along expected lines. 

But I was struck by Mr Mungee's conclusion: 
"I know India will rule the future. It’s just that I’ve realized—I’ve resigned myself to the fact—that I won’t be a part of that future." 
It is easy to dismiss that sentiment, like several of the respondents have, and say that it is Mr Mungee's loss and India's gain! That would be lazy. That would be egregious. 

I would like to request, instead, that Mr Mungee considers a return to India in the near future. 

After making several trips over the last 4 years or so, we decided to relocate to India last year. It wasn't an easy decision. There were many unknowns. However, we were clear about one thing. Just one thing. We were clear that we would come back with our eyes completely open and with clearly set/accepted/understood expectations. Expectations of others. Expectations of ourselves too.

At the time of writing this, we have now been in India for 18 months. It has been a crazy ride. It has been thoroughly confusing at times. It has been deflating and unrewarding at times. The paradoxes are too many to list although a healthy dose of humour helps (see this and this for examples).

But then "eyes open" and "clear expectations" are weasel words. 

What exactly do these mean?


Mr Mungee gives the impression in his introductory comments that he left USA to return to India not to "fix India's problems"

There is an implicitly hidden neat assumption in there that (a) there are indeed problems, (b) that these need "fixing", and (c) these are easily fixed by returning NRIs. 

Yes. It is entirely likely that there are problems that may be fixed (only) by returning NRIs.

But let us ignore that for a minute. Mr Mungee says that he wanted to leave the USA to "go back to Shri Thomas Friedman's India: an India that offered global companies, continental food, international schools and domestic help; an India that offered freedom from outsourcing and George W. Bush."

So it is clear that Mr Mungee did not want to come to India, but to an India that Shri (how nice) Thomas Friedman sketched for him. He did not wish to return to Manmohan Singh's India or Abdul Kalam's India or to the India that he would discover for himself. He wanted to return to an imagery and expectation of an India that had been conveniently -- and perhaps even erroneously -- sketched for him by Shriman Friedman.

And how did the lovely Sarvadhikari Shriman Thomas Friedman arrive at his sketch of India? As Sarah Leonard (@srl2126) noted on Twitter with a tinge of sarcasm, "Tom Friedman visits a country of 1 billion people this week, immerses himself in the great sea of humanity, meeting CEO after CEO after CEO."

And therein, potentially, lies Mr Mungee's own first problem that he might wish to spend some time fixing before embarking on fixing India's myriad problems. Mr Mungee probably built for himself an image of an India that was drawn for him by Shri Thomas Friendman. He wanted to return to Shriman Friedman's India and not the real India. They are different. 

Shriman Friendman's India is a bustling, thriving, lively crush of humanity that cannot crush India's confident march out of poverty, because there are cellphone towers, engineering schools and biotechnology schools at every street corner. It has billboards that advertise physics degrees, for heaven's sake!

It is a nice picture. It is a romantic picture. It is not a clear picture. Indeed, it may even be a wrong picture. But all of that is moot. The real issue here is that there is no Friedman's India. There isn't even a Kalam's India or a Chetan Bhagat's India or Nehru's India. 

India is what you make it out to be. India is what you experience it to be. India is.

And that is what I would use as my argument in attempting to convince Mr Mungee to return to India. Do not come back to Friedman's India or an India that needs fixing. 

We came back to India, instead, because we needed fixing.

And that is precisely where this "expectation setting" begins. This does not ignore the existence of India's many problems nor does it talk to the possibility (however remote) that we might contribute to alleviating these problems. That may well be the case. However, that is not the reason we returned. We returned because we needed fixing and India provided us with an opportunity to do so!


Mr Mungee does state in the initial few paragraphs that he came prepared to experience an India that was "visually familiar but viscerally alien".

That is, once again, off the mark in my view. India can not be about either familiarity or instinct. It is about experience. And it talks to individual, personal experience.

Mr Mungee's expectations of his experience were wrong, in my view. He proceeded to set up home in upper middle-class, suburban Bengaluru. His daughter went to the best schools. Even his home was "American-friendly".

A friend of mine once went to Kenya for a holiday, stayed in an upmarket hotel and did not step outside the block that the Hotel was immersed in because it felt "so much like downtown Sydney"! Much like her, Mr Mungee may have missed the point too. I am not suggesting that Mr Mungee ought to have lived in the gullies and by-lanes of Suddhaguntapalya. But the fact that he aimed a re-creation of an American (or America-like) experience in India suggests to me that he did not work hard enough to create a personal experience for himself that was distinct, special and very possible -- India offers that to everyone that wants a personalized experience.

Much like my friend from Sydney who wanted to see and recreate downtown-Sydney in the very different and far-away Kenya, Mr Mungee gives me the impression that he wanted to carve out his own downtown-US-city experience. Which is fine. But such an expectation should come with a statutory warning: "Expect to be disappointed. Repeated and bullish insistence on this expectation is likely to lead to extreme depression and/or severe disappointment."

And this is precisely where this "expectation setting" continues. If I insist on recreating my little pocket of America or Australia inside the carefully constructed cocoon of my existence in India, I will have missed the opportunity of being confronted and assaulted by myself.


Many people have tried to classify and categorize India. Neatly. They have mostly failed. Few people have succeeded. 

One legend that understood India for what she is, and, more importantly, did not attempt to change it, was the late Yehudi Menuhin, the legendary violinist. He says in his autobiography, "Unfinished Journey" (an excerpt found here) that he recognized early on in his interactions with India and her music that Indians rely predominantly on the individual spirit and an entrepreneurial mindset. Indians prefer that to a systems-organisation-mindset. In his autobiography, Yehudi Menuhin also says that a symphony orchestra type organisation for Indian classical music would just not work because each musician would want to express themselves differently, the way they thought was right or necessary
"Just because the Indian would unite himself with the infinite rather than with his neighbour, so his music assists the venture. Its purpose is to refine one's soul and discipline one's body, to make one sensitive to the infinite within one, to unite one's breath with the breath of space, one's vibrations with the vibrations of the cosmos. Outside the family, the Indian's concern does not easily fasten on the group. Europe's genius, on the other hand, has been to form individuals into communities, each accepting loss of freedom in the interests of the whole. Hence collective worship, hence armies and industries and parliamentary democracy, and hence chorales in which each voice has a certain independence but is nonetheless severely constrained by other voices."
One read of the above and you know why neat compartmentalization of India is impossible. So, attempts to classify India into neat compartments or buckets invariably fail. There aren't 1.2 billion buckets in the world, leave alone identifying labels for each of these 1.2 billion buckets!

Yet, Mr Mungee talks to three (yes, three) neat buckets to classify India: "airplane India", "scooter India" and "bullock-cart India".

Neat. But what about buckets like "scooter India but with iPhone in hand" or "bullock cart India but with the most modern LED TV in the thatched roof home" or "airplane company India" or "a few airplane companies and steel companies but still dependent on (and work with) bullock cart India", or the "airplane India but I will still not purchase the latest A. R. Rahman album, instead preferring to download the pirated copy" or the "autorikshaw driver India but will insist on either purchasing Dork 2 or not reading it at all". 

Each of these India's are unique, distinct and different. And there are more. Many more.

India cannot be classified neatly. And most attempts to do so have fallen flat.

At best I might marvel at how "scooter India" can fix "my Bose speakers" while, simultaneously chiding "tricycle India" for running over the feet of people who walk to some unknown destination on non-existent pavements.

To even begin to understand India in the manner of bibliosoph or a cataloger is, in my view, exercise in utter futility. It is complex system that does not attract bibliognosts readily. It is a multi-dimensional, complex, nonlinear, dynamical system with utterly unpredictable behaviour. We expect completely deterministic results. What we get instead is confusion to the chronicler/observer. Welcome to an anarchic chaos trapped inside a complex and seemingly orderly democracy. We are dealing with a complex chaotic system.

To try and find neat/precise solutions in such chaotic dynamical systems is a somewhat specious and nugatory exercise. And that is what chroniclers like Mr Mungee have tried to do. They try and find closed form descriptions by defining it as a problem that is in need of a solution! 

A more compelling and persuasive approach would be to ask if there is a steady state in such systems and how we might approach such a steady state which is even partially describable!

However, we did not come to classify (or even understand) India. We came, instead, because we needed to classify and understand ourselves


So Mr Mugee arrived with an expectation of seeing Shriman Friedman's India and immediately carried out a task of cataloging that a senior librarian would have been proud of.

Immediately after that, he saw himself become more and more Indian and he hated himself for it. And that is where his problems really commenced. And this is where we begin to address the "eyes open" weasel word. 

Mr Mungee started to hate himself for designating separate dinnerware for his maid and for his family, because his children were down with amoebiasis! He was advised that it may have arisen from his maid's lack of hygiene. The maid who probably cooked his clean food and cleaned his house of unwanted bacterial elements was sadly responsible for introducing these unwanted elements into the body of his family. Ironic. But that is not the point. The point is that Mr Mungee designated separate plates and hated himself for it.

Like all his workmates and friends, Mr Mungee's cycle of distrust in his driver drove him to despair. 

Mr Mungee was locked in a road-rage incident against a hawker who dared to block his car's path. How dare "bullock cart India" block the progress of "airplane India"?

Mr Mungee saw him being continually confronted by deception and with each such mendacious behaviour, he found himself sucked into a vortex of trust-deficit that afflicts much of Indian society. And he hated it.

These are very honest accounts of a journey that Mr Mungee did not like. His was a compelling battle against who he was becoming! For him what he was becoming was a constant affray on his senses. And he was losing. Constantly.

He took the only action he could, to rebel against the "surrealistically familiar stranger" inside him. He quit to escape from inertia and denial.

This is really the crux of the decision in my view. Factors like "appropriate expectation setting" and "cataloging librarians" are useful but not critical in any journey like the one Mr Mungee undertook. What is of greatest importance is the battle within. 

And this is the battle that one faces in India. And provided one does not lapse into either inertia or denial, the resulting lesson is one that India is most capable of teaching.

We made the decision to move back to India because it presented us an opportunity to confront ourselves; it presented us a valuable opportunity to face our own worst enemies (ourselves). To accept defeat in such an exercise would be akin to the surrealistically familiar stranger in me mocking me for having won the battle against myself!

As I say in an earlier post, my life in Australia had become too regimented. Too planned. Incredibly structured. Too well-organised. There was an absence of anarchy in my life. There were few surprises to life. Moreover, my senses weren't attacked constantly. My principles weren't brought into question periodically. 

Here, it is. 

And when I see it alive, I know I am, myself, alive. I have made it define my existence. I constantly fight the "high-fidelity bigotry" where I can. I battle the "surround-sound-enabled stereotypes" when I see them. I also aim to battle the "chronic amoebiasis of the soul".

I am not going to provide examples here because these examples would serve to trivialize the exercise into one of bluster and self-aggrandizement. 

It is sufficient to say that we now have the opportunity to look at the surrealistically familiar stranger within ourselves and strive for sharper congruence and alignment. Again, we came back because we had to understand ourselves better


So my message to Mr Mungee is simple: 

Come back to India because you want to see Mr Mungee's India and not Shri Friedman's India. Come back to India not to solve her problems (and these exist, let us not deny them) but so that you may undertake a journey to solve your problems (and these exist too, let us not deny them). The process of you confronting and vanquishing that surrealistically familiar stranger may well lead to India's problems being solved too. If your process of discovery does not solve India's problems, you will have undertaken a journey and benefited from what India taught you. 

And India affords that to any honest explorer.

To give up and head back would be to give up on oneself, and that just cannot be acceptable.

-- Mohan (@mohank)

Friday, October 21, 2011

How clean is your milk?

In an earlier post, I wrote about how we struggled to settle into a new life in Mumbai after living overseas for several years. I continue on that same theme in this post too...

After living nearly 20 years overseas, my Tamil, Kannada and Hindi had gone quite rusty. On reading the above, please do not make the assumption that my Tamil/Kannada/Hindi was on solid footing at some point. To make that assumption would be a bit like Himesh Reshamaiyya saying he could not sing on the night because he had temporarily lost his voice! 

One aspect of re-settling into a life in India that did scare me initially was language. I was worried I would continually make an ass of myself. Even though life had prepared me, through a series of valuable experiential learning opprtunities, to recover well from a series of seemingly hopeless and relentless "Oh!I made an ass of myself... Again!" situations, not being able to communicate in an articulate manner was something that bothered me a lot. 

So, our initial few months were spent polishing and practicing our Hindi. We had to communicate with people effectively in Hindi and it had to be 'reasonably perfect Hindi' we thought. It was only later that we realized that anything goes in terms of Hindi in Mumbai.

But the initial few months were frustrating. We had to interact with numerous tradespeople, workers and suppliers. It seemed as though we just could not get things right in terms of communication.

I believe deficiencies in language are brought out maximally when one is frustrated and/or angry. In those initial months we would often sputter and flounder maximally when we were frustrated with tradespeople or furniture delivery people. 

No one would arrive at the appointed time and those that did would often not bring the required tools or equipment with them. And this would inevitably mean more delays in an already delayed process. Getting the right words out was always a struggle in those desperate moments. We would often launch into English or Tamil in the middle of a high-pitched Hindi-based diatribe. We would then look at each other and break into a laugh. 

Try yelling in a language that you are not totally comfortable with! 

Sometimes we would translate from English to Hindi and get it messed up totally. For example, in response to a request from a friend for us to visit their place on a very busy day for us, I blurted out: "patha nahin yaar. kaan se khelna padega" ("I'm really not sure. We will have to play it by ear?").

A colleague of mine insisted on speaking with me only in Hindi. Indeed he took it on as a challenge that I would be proficient in written and spoken Hindi before I completed my contract in India and before I headed back to Australia! 

In one particular meeting that both of us attended, I wanted to communicate to this colleague that the situation we faced was almost impossible. It was a bad "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. 

The first phrase that came to my mind to describe our situation was "We are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea". The next thought was "We are the meat in the sandwich". And the third was "We are caught between a rock and a hard place".

So, here I was, saying to this colleague: "hum shaitaan aur neela samundar ke beech mein khade hain!" That comment sank faster than a Uday Chopra movie! 

So, I used the next option and rattled off confidently, "hum bread ke beech mein ghost ban gaye"At that point, all blood drained from my colleagues face. He looked like a bit of a 'ghost' himself!

I gave up on attempting the third phrase. Had I tried, my colleague would have picked up a rock and flung it in my direction.

Translation from one language to another just does not work. 

For example, on another occasion a friend of ours was visiting us. They struggle with their Hindi as much as we do. We were talking about a mutual friend of ours who had a large farm in Australia. Now this common friend specialized in growing fruits and vegetables on his farm. I asked how this friend was doing. In response, after a quick translation, pat came the reply, "Woh to ab ghay me ghus gaya" ("he has entered a cow")!

I immediately choked on the samosa that I was munching! The picture of a hapless Malcolm being stuck in a cow's underbelly was both funny and tragic! It was only when I did a literal re-translation did I realize that what was meant was, "He has gotten into cows now!"

There are several similar lovely examples of single-language (mainly English-to-Hindi) translations, particularly in those early days that provided us with much mirth and also significant learning opportunities! But it is when one has to do a double-translation to convey meaning that you lose the plot quicker than a Himesh Reshamaiyya melody!

An early classic was when Girija was trying to communicate to our maid that yogurt had to be cultured. Now "culturing yogurt" is a process and we hadn't got to that degree of refinement in our language construction. We were struggling with nouns and adjectives in those days. This was a difficult phase. When we got gender right, we'd often launch a week-long celebration! So, pronunciation or lyrical efficiency were not top on the priority list! We had not yet got to mastering the Hindi equivalent for the activity/process of "culturing yogurt".

However, the activity had to be communicated to the maid.

So, what does one do? Girija's mind quickly jumped to the nearest possible translation opportunity, which was to translate from Tamil to English and then, from English to Hindi! Now, in Tamil, this process of culturing yogurt is known as "tozhkaradu". Indeed that word in Tamil is common to the process of "culturing yogurt" and "washing clothes".

So, here we were, on a Monday morning, about to rush out to work. Girija communicated a series of instructions to the maid and remembered that yogurt had to be cultured for the first time at home since we moved to Mumbai.

So she said, "arre haan. aaaj doodh ko... doodh ko... matlab... [double-translation affected effortlessly from Tamil-to-English-to-Hindi]... haaaan! doodh ko dhona hai!" ("Oh yes, the milk needs to.. needs to... I mean... the milk needs to be washed!"

The maid looked at us as though we had just descended from another planet! She must have thought that we were funny people with weird tastes. She slowly re-attached her jaw to her face. She probably did not know what to say. She wanted to laugh, and she did. A bit. But she wanted to be polite too. She also had no idea what we meant and was scared she was taking on a task that would eventually land her in trouble. 

So, she stared at us blankly and said somewhat innocently, "Madam, doodh ko kaise dhona hai? vaise bhi, doodh to safed hi hai" ("Madam, how do I wash milk? In any case, the milk is already white!")

We ran out of the house. 

We purchased ready-set yogurt that evening! 

-- Mohan (@mohank)

Ps: The right phrase for that process is "doodh to jamana hai"

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Settling into life in Mumbai: A Licen...

It is now 18 months since we moved back to Mumbai. Girija and I had lived in Australia for many years prior to that. 

A few days back, we had organised a Twitter-inspired get-together -- a TweetUp -- at our appartment in Mumbai. The evening has been captured wonderfully in a blog-post by the lovely Naren Shenoy.

During the evening, I recounted -- badly, of course -- some of the initial struggles we had when settling into a "new normal" life in Mumbai.

"You are so incredibly bad at telling a story Mo," Girija said. She is good like that! She calls a spade a shovel and keeps me grounded. Always!

As I sulked and slithered into a corner that was happy to receive me, perhaps out of extreme sympathy, one of our guests (Twests, perhaps?) said, "Why don't you write these experiences down?"

I thought that that was a sensible idea since I do write better than I narrate -- now you know how terrible my narrations are!

And so, here I am... Using my hitherto suspended blog to write once again about things other than cricket.

The invitation and encouragement to blog about my experiences may have been driven by a momentary rush of face-saving empathy on the part of my friend. However, on reflection, I think it is a good idea to write because I believe I am caught in the middle of a truly fascinating process; a process of re-connecting and re-discovery.

I moved back to Mumbai in March 2010. I had been away from India for some 24 years. That is a long time to be away from a place. I needed to re-establish connect with the place and her people. Of course, in the time I had been away, I had made the pilgrimage to attend the Madras/Chennai "Music Season" almost every year since I had left. However, we soon realized that living in a place is quite different to making fleeting annual appearances during which one eats out almost everyday and when one attends classical music concerts in well-appointed air-conditioned halls.

"Living in a place like India is very different to visiting every now and then," I was warned by a friend!

"Unless you stand in a queue to purchase a train ticket, you have not really lived here," said a another.

I had lost all sense of what it was like to live and work in India.

It is now 18 months since we moved back, to live in India; a year and a half of immense paradoxes.

Initially, when we had just moved back to India in March 2010, I used my "Face Book" (FB) Status updates quite a bit to connect with the friends we had said goodbye to in Australia -- I wasn't much on Twitter then. I used my FB status updates to talk about life here. I would marvel at things that astounded us. I would also whinge and moan about things that weren't 'quite right'! Even when I whined, I was trying to laugh at the situation in a mock-tragic manner rather than ridicule the situation and the actors in it. That said, I did also post positive messages of some amazing things that we were seeing. I did marvel at the fact that we had our MTNL connection within 12 hours of applying for one -- that too on a Saturday! I did marvel at how 'easy' life had become in India. But "perception" is a funny thing! People remember the negative comments more than positive appreciation/affirmation.

One of my FB friends who lives in Chennai called me immediately after one such 'negative' FB status update and snorted angrily, "If you don't like it here, just pack your bags and go back."

I accepted and empathized with that sentiment even if I did not support it entirely. Mainly because that sentiment resonates strongly with a picture I have of Indians as people that love humor and love a laugh except when it is on us! And even when the laugh is on Indians, more often than not, only an Indian can be the originator or creator of such self-denigration.

In those initial days, I wasn't Indian enough; I had not earned my self-sledge rights. So the "go back" comment was par for the course.

Witness the Edison drama that played out when Joel Stein wrote an article in The Times. The 'race card' was used and waved quite easily. If the same article had been written by an Indian-Indian -- like say a Karan Thapar or Rajdeep Sardesai -- I submit that it would not have registered a blip on the race-card-scale!

I say "Indian-Indian" to indicate Indians who live in India. The Indian-Indian has self-sledge rights by virtue of his/her residency. Indians who live overseas are not considered "Indian" enough. The overseas-Indians who only visit here during their children's school holidays or for "Music Season" visits are commonly referred to as NRI's. Non-resident Indians is the official expansion of the acronym, although Not-Required Indians is a commonly accepted expansion too!

So one needs to earn self-mock stripes and you only earn it after spending (read: suffering) enough time here. It is like a prison sentence.

Indeed, a few months after I moved to Mumbai, a friend of mine said to me, "I totally agree" when I whined about needless traffic delays in Andheri West caused by a truck moving the wrong way on a one-way street!

I said to her, "But when I whined about exactly the same issue last year, while I was visiting, we had a three-hour argument! We argued about the impact of population and then moved quickly on to how discriminatory the ICC was against India, Ricky Ponting's misbehavior, Adam Gilchrist's ears, Arjuna Ranatunga throwing his weight around and the need for Sri Sri Ravishankar to have two titles in his name!"

She said, "Ah! But that was different. Now you have earned the right to complain!"

But I accept that some of what I wrote in those initial few months (on my FB updates) could be seen as "grating". In that sense, the "pack up your bags and go back" friend was right. But the intent of those FB Updates was less to "make fun of" or "laugh at" and more to share my somewhat unique experiences. 

I was seeing India with a different lens.

And to be constructively balanced about it, I was having an incredibly rich experience! My life in Australia had become too regimented. Too planned. Incredibly structured. Too well-organised. There was an absence of anarchy in my life. There were few surprises to life. Here, in India, at least in those initial months, every hour threw new surprises! I learned to cope in a highly ambiguous environment, interacting with highly ambiguous personalities! I soon acquired inter-personal skills that were hitherto buried or latent. I had to hit the ground running. I had no choice. I sharpened these hitherto absent skills considerably in order to "cut through" on many issues. As a mentor of mine often says, "In India, there is no point in climbing stairs, you have to land on the terrace using a helicopter!"

But, simple/small things used to get to me initially.

For example, I would constantly get irritated by the fact that people pressed the "Up" and "Down" button on elevators. Simultaneously! "Surely, they don't want to go up and down at the same time," I'd think to myself.

One day, I plucked enough courage: "Why did you press both buttons, madam", I asked one of these Up-Down-lift-button-pushers politely.

"Mein neeche jaane ke liye lift ko upar bula raha hoon," was the assured response ("I am calling the lift up so that I can go down")

A novel explanation for why both buttons needed to be pressed. I had no come-back to that.

Initially, I marveled at how simple English errors would cause me to break into a smile or a laugh.

For example, the other day, I was at a hotel in Bangalore. I had asked for a cab to pick me up at the hotel at 8.30am. At exactly 8.30am, I got a call from the hotel concierge. He said, "Sir, your car has been reported!" It took me a while to realize that my car had reported to the front desk and that it had not "been reported"!

And there was that bandh last year where some political party was protesting against price increases. A party spokesman claimed victory and in a passion-filled speech he said, "Prices have begun to rise. We are revolting!" I had to agree with the second statement!

And then, there would be some deeper frustrations.

For example, I would often get worked up about the fact that not many people would respond to a meeting request 'appropriately'. Back in Australia, I'd get a, "Yep, you are on mate." or a "You got to be kidding. No way. Get stuffed." The best I would get initially in India would be "That time should be ok" or "That time would be ok". Now what exactly does that mean? It took me a while to figure out that the presence of would/should/could in response to a meeting request means that the person is buying an option on a potential future cancellation! This made life quite complex for a neurotically organised and frenetically structured person like me. But I guess that is my problem and not their problem! And therein lies a fundamental dysfunctionality in the landscape -- far too many people worry about their issues and problems.

But like much else over here, I got used to that too... 

Until a few weeks back that is, when, in response to a meeting request, I had the person at the other end of the line saying, "I think that in all probability that date-time would be possibly ok!" Now, I can buy one option on a future cancellation. But I counted at least four in that particular form of extreme dithering!

Nothing, however, prepared me for my drivers' licence experience. The test was the biggest joke played out on me in the initial 5 months of my stay here. The way it works these days is that one has to go through a driving school in order to secure a drivers' licene.

So on the appointed day, my local driving school piled on 15 of its test-ready candidates into 4 cars. It is a surprise that these cars traveled 20 meters! However, somehow the 4 cars managed to reach the RTO office in a place called Wadala, located some 20 kilometers away! We were warned the previous day that we had to get there "on the dot" at 10.30am. "We cannot keep the inspector waiting," we were told.

So, we got there at 10.30am and waited... and waited... and waited... in the rain and out in the open and right next to an open drain! There were 5 other driving schools with their gaggle of test-ready candidates. In all, some 90 people, 20 cars and only 10 umbrellas waited patiently for the arrival of an inspector.

The inspector finally made an appearance at 2.30pm. By then I had already devoted 5 hours to this utterly useless exercise, and that was already 4 hours and 45 minutes too many. I was quite irritated -- especially considering the fact that I stood out in the rain and alongside an open/smelly ditch

When the man arrived, there was a mad scramble by the entire collection of hungry, irritated test-ready candidates to get into the cars of their respective driving schools. The driving instructors from these schools meanwhile jockeyed for positions on the circuit. This was akin to a Formula-1 grid where cars and drivers often duck, weave and swerve in order to eke out a starting position on the grid for themselves: "Mark Weber would have no chance of surviving this mad scramble," I thought to myself.

Anyhow, the result of all of this frenetic activity was that 20 cars lined up one behind the other on a busy highway in Wadala. I was in car number 15.

And so, the procession set off with the candidate who was to be tested in the driver's seat and with the portly inspector in the front passenger seat. After each "test", which would last no more than 300 meters, the portly inspector would ask the candidate to stop and get out of the car. The test-driver would move to the back seat and the next candidate in the back seat would move to the driver's seat and take the "test". Once all test-candidates in one car had completed their "test", the portly inspector would get out of the "now completed" car, shoo that car and its contents away and move to the next car in the queue!

This uniquely ridiculous procession made several U-turns on this very busy highway. Several large trucks traveled on both directions on this highway. The fact that I did not witness an accident that day was a minor miracle. It was totally surreal and incredulous!

I had never seen anything quite like this before... ever! One part of my brain was exploding. The other laughed so hard, I had a head-ache. I sat there shaking my head at the ridiculousness of it all. This "procession test" went on for an hour before portly guy settled into the car I was in -- car number 15 in the mad-grid-scramble earlier on.

Portly guy asked me to sit behind the wheel and drive. I was quite irritated by then. Frankly, by then, I didn't care if I got my licence or not.

Portly guy announced: "Licen Test shuru!" ("Licen Test starts now!")

A point to note here is that the traffic inspectors call it a "licen" here and not "licence". I could never figure out why, but I would soon have the answer.

I settled down behind the wheel with the express intention of irritating portly guy. I asked him, "Should I wear a seat belt?" to which he said in Hindi, "No. Not required". I continued with tongue-pressed-firmly-in-cheek and asked if I had to adjust the rear-view mirror. I was met with a stony glare and a terse response, "I haven't got all day. Just drive now, will you?"

I drove fast. I changed three gears in 20 meters! I was angry.

Portly Guy: Stop! Looks like you have driven before.
Me: Yes
PG: Why did you not say this before?
Me: Why did you not ask me before?
PG: It is not written in this form.
Me: It was not asked on the form.
PG: Ok. Do not try to make too smart. Get down. (zyaada smart math ban-naa. uthar jaayiE)

As I got down from the test-car, I asked Portly Guy in my broken Hindi:

Me: "ab kya hoga?" ("What will happen now?")
PG: "ab aur kya hoga? Licen mil jayega do hafte mein". ("What else can happen now? You will get your LICEN in 2 weeks")

Pleased as punch, I pressed on, innocently:

Me: "Sir, isko aaap Licen kyon bolte hain?" ("Sir, why do you call it a LICEN")
PG (looks at form and then at me and says in a brusque and angry tone): "aaapko ek hi chahiye naaa?" ("You want only one no?")
Me: "haaaan, ek hi chahiye". ("Yes, only one")
PG "to theek hai. Licen hi hai. Ek Licen, do licens" ("So that is right. One Licen. Two Licens")

I had my licen in two weeks. But more importantly, I was finally able to figure out why the traffic cops call it a LICEN in these parts. One licen. Two licens!

Since then, that word has become part of our vocabulary at home. I need a licen from Girija to drink one glass of wine. If I feel like a second, I need a licens! A licen for one morning coffee. A licens for two!

Precious lessons, these.

-- Mohan