Cover pic for this post, also the logo for the series, with a cartoon dog wagging its tale fervently with the name broken into two parts and written on each of his sides

Irfanimals | Wags in a Name | Here’s Wagging…

Irfanimals LogoChaining them. Caging them. Thrashing them. Training them (for the circus, where this practice still goes on, or training them beyond limits if at home). However, something equally “criminal” we can do with a dog is… giving them a commonplace name.

Pic of one of my street dog friends with some meme text of sorts

One of my many street dog friends, Johnny, who I’d love to rename, but who’s stuck with this name since he was a tot

I won’t go into home-dog territory (as I’m more of a street-dog lover), but I’ve lost count of the Tigers, Leos, Brunos and Caesars I’ve heard). Even among the streeties, the few that some folk deign to name, they show equally lazy thinking. Moti, Raja, Sheru, among the Hindi vernacular; Tommy, Rocky, Johnny, among those who know English; and down South, Lakshmi, Mani, and well, Mani. (Coming to this in just a bit.) Lakshmi (the Hindu goddess of wealth / prosperity) is such a popular name for street dogs in Chennai / Tamil Nadu that almost every second dog I come across that I haven’t named seems to be called so, including… the male ones. Arrey, at least check properly and then call him Lakshman, no? But no, a goddess has higher standing than a god’s brother, right? As for that double Mani thing, it’s a prime example of the height of laziness (and that’s why the double hyperbole). Two dogs who hang around together are both called Mani. How does which Mani know which Mani is being called? And with the equal number of men who seem to be called that, how mani, sorry, many men will also turn when I shout that name?

Well, I’m here to correct this anomaly. An ad guy, especially a branding aficionado, and a (street) dog lover, I’ve decided to put these two powers together to put together a primer of sorts on how to name a dog you come across (on the street, who you decide to become friendly with) or one you decide to bring home (if doing so, do bring one from the shelter; there’s too much cruelty in buying a breed dog, but more of that some other time).

Cover pic for this post, also the logo for the series, with a cartoon dog wagging its tale fervently with the name broken into two parts and written on each of his sidesSo, dog-loving ladies and gentlemen, I give you… Wags in a Name. A short sub-series within my animal series, Irfanimals, on how to name a dog, so that, as the name suggests, you’ll see their tail wagging. Another way of looking at it is, the name should sit well on the dog, just like their wagging tail. I’m so clever, no? That’s why I’m in advertising, I guess.

Anyway, wag, er, watch this space. Woof!

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Composite cover pic for this post, with a pic of the Chennai floods on the left and a leopard near a Mumbai residential colony at night on the right, with the text 'Living in Fear... Across Cities'

Ire | A Tale of Two Cities’ Fears

Logo for Ire, the series on my blog for social commentary

My new piece on thREAD, The Hindu’s online segment on perspectives, comment and such, on the fear psychosis of sorts in two Indian cities. Curious? Read on. (Though my blog post has slightly additional content.)

This piece on thREAD

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In the recently released Phobia, Mehak, Radhika Apte’s character, an artist, is molested by the driver of the cab she’s returning in late night from her art show. Resulting from that trauma, Mehak develops agoraphobia, a fear of being in perceptibly threatening places. She is panic-stricken and feels paralysed at the thought of just stepping out of the apartment door. Even when her boyfriend moves her out of her home to a rental, he has to drug her to do so. (Mahek is compelled to move out as her sister, who she is living with and is married with a son, begins fearing for how Mahek’s mental state and her resulting actions will affect her child and thus also begins getting exasperated with Mahek.) However, her condition doesn’t necessarily improve in the new place, and she sweats and palpitates like, um, crazy for a simple activity of putting out garbage bags.

Chennaiites seem to be in the grip of a similar fear presently. That of the rains. The moment they feel the drop of a drop (for the past few weeks, the city’s been intermittently receiving off-season, convective showers), images of horror and feelings of misery rush into the collective psyche. Thanks, or rather, no thanks to the floods of last year.

People walking to safer places during the Chennai floods of December 2015However, as someone who’s stayed here only for a few years, my reactions – and I don’t mean to be insensitive in the least bit – seem to be more like those of people around Mahek: puzzled at the mass fear, so to speak. During the rains / floods too, I was baffled first by the amount of rain the city received (a city that I had heard has only one season, hot, or three: hot, hotter, hottest) and then by the reactions of both the city and the people: anguished, broken, crushed. And this isn’t because I stay in a part of the city that seems to have better civic amenities. Or because I wasn’t able to see the effects in the other parts; when the lights came back two days later, on TV, we finally got a sense of the plight all around. So, before you seem baffled in turn by why I was bewildered by the city’s and the citizens’ what-I-initially-considered “magnified” responses, and therefore come across as callous and uncaring, let me share why.

I have stayed in Bombay / Mumbai for the longest time, and before that, in Calcutta / Kolkata or pretty long too. Two coastal cities, just like Chennai, but that receive a lot more rain than Chennai, so much so that in both metros during monsoon, there are occasional floods, or at least regular water-logging.

In Mumbai, people’s reaction to the rains moves along with the months of the monsoon. May end, when people have been burnt to the bone, but sense the first rumbles of the clouds, hearts begin fluttering in anticipation, much like the office-goer’s at Friday 4pm. When the first rains hit (usually around end May or early June; this year, they are set to debut around now), those hearts, and people to who those hearts belong, begin dancing. They rush out, drench in the first rain, on Marine Drive, at Juhu, or just in the compound. Everyone feels like a merry Bollywood couple. Young, old and wet alike, they hum classic rainy songs, brim with poetry, and talk of quaint things like “the redolent petrichor”.

A month later, the mood is, well, May-December. After four weeks of grimacing through slushy streets, wet clothes, wetter shoes, soaked shirts and skirts, sitting or standing next to other soaked shirts and skirts in the local or metro, the Mumbaiite is already begging for a reprieve. And Nature responds in true Nature-ishtyle, by giving them… July. When the rain is at its most belligerent and leads to the breakdown of most civic machinery, especially on one day Made in Hell. This is either mid or late July; 26/7 is another beleaguered date in Mumbai’s long list of such dates, and similar to Chennai’s 1/12.

A local train and people in deep water during the Mumbai floods of 26/7 2005Train services and trees collapse, people are stranded in offices, on roads, at stations. Or take hours to get back home. When they finally do, all they want is a comforting hot bath. Only to find there’s no electricity. By which time, they are cussing the corporation in ways that would do the Delhi Sardarji proud. The next day, of course, everything is considered off: offices, schools, colleges, services. Sounds the same as what happened recently in Chennai, right? (See, I told you I wasn’t being insensitive.) And this occurs year after year, without fail. In fact, if it didn’t, people would think something was wrong with Mumbai, or with Nature. But the next-to-next day, the city, as has become hoary to say by now, “bounces back”. Everything is back to normal, or some semblance of it.

Before the puzzled Chennaiite wonders how, this isn’t all because Mumbai really has some “never-say-die” spirit (in fact, with all that the city’s endured over the years, Mumbaiites feel that statement is a cruel irony), but also because, due to its location on the country’s west coast, which receives the south-west monsoons, the main rains in India, it has built a largely decent and decently working drainage system, despite the burgeoning population. The lack of which, many admit, did Chennai in during the Rains from Hell. As also the unmindful construction of buildings in low-lying areas and marshlands. And of course, faulty coordination and decision-making when it came to the matter of that dam-water release. All of which have given many a Chennaiite many a horror for many a month at the sound of not many a rumble.

So, does Mumbai have nothing to flinch about then? Nope, many a Mumbaiite has a phobia too.

If Chennai has been witnessing large-scale unauthorised construction due to its emergence as a software and manufacturing hub, its firm position as the South’s film capital, and thus the constant influx into the city, and therefore the need for massive new commercial and residential spaces, Mumbai’s tale has been no different. After it finished reclaiming land from water (the city was built from seven islands and now even has a sea link connecting some of them) and then claiming the air (high-rises), the city, due to similar reasons of being a financial, marketing, and glamour capital and thus having non-stop immigration, has been devouring land, like a super-starved T-Rex. And after eating up most of legit land, it’s been turning its attention to… the forest.

Builders, unscrupulous and unknowing alike, aren’t just building close to forest land, they are also building on it. I myself have stayed in a few such places. One complex, built on official forest property, had a long fence put up by either the builder or the residents, demarcating the “residential space” from the “forest land”, as if to give the complex legitimacy. (After a long-drawn-out proceeding, the owners – mercifully, I was a tenant here – had to pay compensation to prevent their flats from being razed. And this is proving to be more the norm.) Another area, very rapidly developed, where I actually was an owner, has been created by carving a big, long road through what was earlier considered a jungle and enveloping the city’s national park. It still has signposts urging people to watch out for crossing animals. In other areas, buildings and complexes are coming up either on hills or by breaking down hills. At this rate, Mumbai may soon need another mode of transport: ropeways.

Now, when you build on land that was earlier the animals’ and thus enter what was their terrain, the animals, devoid of an exclusive territory, are (apart from many dying as a result) forced to enter what is now “your terrain”. And I’m not talking wild pig, snake or fox here, but… big cat.

A leopard photographed at dusk, with the lights of a Mumbai suburb in the backgroundSo, if every year, the whole of Mumbai has to bear the brunt of brutal rains for one day, every two-three years, for a month or so, the people living in these encroached areas are seized by big-cat fear. One day, someone spots a leopard, or worse, claims a leopard attacked and killed a child or small-sized adult, and everyone, obviously, begins panicking. Wildlife authorities are called in, people are warned not to go out alone in the dark, residents are advised to keep their surroundings clean (the big cat comes for street dogs, who are found near dumps, as its food source is getting rapidly depleted in the rapidly disappearing jungle), banners with messages on reaction and action points are put up. When the fear reaches crippling levels, typically with numerous sightings (though many of these might be unfounded), there is pressure on the officials to “do something”. What they typically do is set a live-animal trap for the cat. If it works, they go release the animal into deep jungle or a distant forest area. (This typically doesn’t work; there have been cases of leopards that have made their way back 100+ kms, as they are known to be the smartest of the big cats and, like all beings, prefer their own territory.) The people seem satisfied though.

During that month or so, though, people are understandably super-paranoid. A former colleague who lived close to my place told me she would jump on seeing a branch shake at night. In the same area, when returning late through a 750-m straight, dark stretch with buildings on one side and forest on the other, I would be nervous myself, not knowing if the two lights in the distance are a small car’s or a big cat’s. And so I would take the auto right up to the building entrance, asking the autowaala to wait until I had gone in. In this other area, when I had visited an animal shelter during the period of a “big-cat strike”, the director told me a leopard had come a couple of nights (smelling potential prey), walked up and down the boundary wall, but had gone away, as the shelter had made sure all the small animals were locked inside. And when leaving my building for work one morning, I heard a clutch of young mothers exchanging fearful notes (at that time, two leopards, a male and a female, had “struck terror”, something like The Ghost and The Darkness), with one lady exasperating, Yeh kahaan se aaye hain??” (Where have they come from??) The animal lover (and somewhat expert) in me retorted, in my mind, ‘The animals could be saying the same thing about you…’

One city afraid of water from above. Another of cats from around. What they really need to fear – in case it isn’t clear already – is rapid, rabid, unthinking, unplanned growth. Mull over that while I go check whether that slow, gaining sound outside is a growing drizzle or a growling feline.

To rest people’s minds a bit, let me resort to the words of several wildlife campaigners in these “leopard-infested” areas in Mumbai, who now rather than aiming to remove the big cat from its territory are attempting to educate residents that it’s possible to “live with leopards”. They say, “If you’ve seen a leopard once, it’s seen you 20 times by then. And yet, it chooses not to do anything (to you).” I can’t resist adding, who really is the better species here?

Check out this link: Living with Leopards in Mumbai

Cover pic for this post with the text 'On1y The Best', the 'On1y' formed using the On1y logo
A meme on determination

IrfindingVegan | On1y (the determined)| Prologue

IrfindingVegan LogoI must be a very determined person. Twice over. But let’s start at the very beginning.

From a food bloggers' meetAbout three months ago, this digital agency group head who I have done a project for and done initial consultation on one other project called me for another initial consultation on another project. For a food brand. As he knows I’m vegan and therefore know quite a bit about food and also blog about it, but of course from a vegan perspective. One idea he shared was organizing a food bloggers’ meet. I didn’t know much about this then, and didn’t know any food bloggers either (in my network), but intrigued, decided to find out more, over time. For you can only do this gradually, plus the client put this and the other ideas we discussed in cold storage soon after.

Logo of Social Beat, a social-media agency based in ChennaiNow, when I was attending another meet-up recently, organized by another digital agency, Social Beat (specifically, social media agency), I came to know of a food bloggers’ meet they were organizing for one of their brands, On1y (note the spelling). They were looking for influencers, and although I don’t consider myself one (except maybe in my vegan group, and only with regard to communication), and I’m guessing neither did they, but perhaps because I expressed a lot of interest and perhaps out of some goodwill (this was the second meet-up of theirs I was attending, plus I follow them on social media), they decided to put me on the roster. I confirmed my attendance by mail, and awaited the event. It disappointingly got postponed once, but elatingly enough, got scheduled for the next week (last Friday). I started getting my branding and vegan senses ready.

Cartoon depicing a man with the runsIt was scheduled for 12 – 3 pm. And exactly at 9.30 am on Friday, an hour before I had planned to leave, I started getting… the runs. Talk of ironies of life. During my second visit to the washroom, I wondered what the culprit was – yes, the stale pizza bread I had the previous day – and once that was nabbed, started putting my mind to the other worry: should I go?

I don’t think they would have missed my presence tremendously – they were not really looking for a vegan perspective. Also, I could attend some other food bloggers’ meet in the future to know how these work. But I’ve been trying to make myself more positive for sometime now – pity my stomach wasn’t aligned – so, came out, dug into my emergency medicine pouch, and pulled out and popped two pills for the loosies.

I then had to play the waiting and resting games. As the clock kept ticking and approached the mark at which I had planned to leave, things finally seemed to clear: no rumbles, no tumbles. I stepped back in for my shower – things continued to hold up – dried up, got ready, and things were still looking good. I looked at the clock: 11 am. I could make it, but not with the bus/share auto, as I had initially planned, but with the new-age/tech boon, Uber.

The earlier Uber logo with the letter 'F' before itI launched the app, and… it refused to launch. I got a screen that I don’t remember ever getting. Asking me to log in or register. Now, who remembers their ID/passwords for these things? I mean, don’t we just keep them on, with location turned off? Anyway, so, I set about trying to recall my password, managed to, but it still refused to launch, going into an eternal spin. I did the next thing you’re supposed to do with gadgets in India: switch on and off. I repeated the whole process, and was still met with the whirling wheel. Again the process. Again the same result. It was then time to do what every Uber does in an emergency: use Ola.

But it just wasn’t going to be my day. (Of course not, it was Friday the 13th, it just struck me.) Ola too wouldn’t work: it couldn’t identify my location. I checked my location settings, they were fine, so went back. But again, the same result. Ah, yes, maybe it was because I had loaded some extra apps the previous day. Went and uninstalled them. Same result.A black cat near the date 'Friday 13' on a calendar

Next move: use my tab. But on launching it, I remembered I had recently had it cleaned of viruses and therefore all apps, so would need to install the app/s all over again, but then also remembered that the tech guy at the service centre had told me my tab doesn’t have the memory. My mind was whirring like that Uber wheel.

When stuck, do the same thing the fifth time, only with more care/vigour. This time, there was some response from Uber, but not a good one: my account had been disabled and I could contact their support for more info. No time for this. (That saga is turning out very distasteful: Uber has disabled my account without giving me a reason and also gobbled up the money I had therein.)

No Uber, no Ola. Was I a goner? Not quite. Time to pull out my next weapon: call my sometime-regular cab and auto drivers. Called the cab guy. It was his day of leave, someone else answering his phone told me. But of course. Called the auto guy. In the Tamil I could understand, he was somewhere far off, perhaps running some candidate’s election campaign. I wished the candidate ill. The time: almost 12. Should I really go? A still-determined yes. I was way too committed by now. But for this, I would have to resort to my most unfavoured experience in Chennai or anywhere on the planet: hail a regular auto guy and bargain with him.

Info-pic, of man bargaining with Chennai autorickshaw driver with complaint information given aboveIn case you don’t know, auto-drivers in Chennai don’t ply by the meter, although they are supposed to, and there are enough notices around, even on their autos themselves, urging the public to report against non-compliant drivers. But you can’t win against the Chennai autokaaran. And definitely not if you aren’t 100% comfortable with the language and look like an NRI (their words). I believe he’s up there with politicians and movie-stars as among the most powerful people in Chennai.

But I have a strategy for this. (Apart from being determined, I am also very resourceful, I guess.) It’s not sure-shot, but it’s the only one that can guarantee someone like me (the Tamil-uncomfortable NRI) a fair chance. Unlike most people, when the auto guy approaches me after I’ve hailed him, I don’t first tell him where I want to go. No, that would put the power in his auto-wielding hands. He would engage me for a while asking where exactly I wanted to go, checking whether that indeed is the place, which route and all, all the while sizing up how much he could fleece off me. I first and immediately ask him, in my best Tamil, whether he’ll ply by the meter. That does two things. It weans out the thieving folks, the ones who wouldn’t ply by the meter, and I have no interest in engaging them or with them. It also anchors the conversation, giving me some power in the discussion/negotiation: they understand immediately that someone who’s asked for the meter will not pay much more above the meter. (I have other strategies, but those are more for ‘A Survival Guide in Chennai’.)

So, this driver I had ignored because he was outside his auto (another strategy: that guy would not be interested, as he’s outside and not in a running vehicle, and would demand more money for the simple act of moving his lazy ass), when he got back into his vehicle asked me where I wanted to go. I did my number: “Will you put the meter?” He insisted (his strategy): “Where do you want to go?” Me: “I want to go by the meter. Will you go by the meter?” He was adamant too: “Where do you want to go?” I relented (it was too hot): “<Destination>” He: “No, too far, I don’t have the gas.” (Basically, an excuse for: ‘I don’t want to go because you have insisted so much that you want the meter and now I know I can’t fleece you.’)

A second driver approached. (He wasn’t wearing the uniform. Another strategy: never take an auto from someone who’s not following the uniform rule – if he won’t follow the uniform rule, he won’t follow any other rule, definitely not that of pricing.) However, desperation (or some instinct) got the better of me. He and I ran through the same conversation above. Only, he demanded 20 bucks above the meter. Nothing doing; I’ll give only 10 more. He insisted. I maintained my position. He relented. As I got in, he… put on the uniform. I told you I had an instinct about him.

As he started off, he checked with me which route to take. We discussed a bit, but finally decided to go with his suggestion. He seemed to be one of the rare decent Chennai autowaalas. As we made our way, the clock of course kept ticking. It was 12.08 by the time we started. 12.15, 12.20, 12.25… 12.27, we were at the entrance of the hotel. But today had to be the 360o test of my determination. He didn’t have change. And I wasn’t going to let him have 55 bucks as “keep the change”.

He asked me to check with the hotel guys. That would take too much time. He decided to check with nearby auto guys. I knew that wouldn’t work either: no one helps in these situations. Sure enough, they didn’t. Time to pull out my final weapon: it’s for times like these I keep two wallets, a smaller one for change. I pulled it out, rolled out all the coins, pulled out all the coins and small notes from the main wallet, counted, double-counted, and realised I had his money. However, he would need to count, double-count, and be sure. As he did, the clock kept ticking: 12.30. He was finally satisfied. But would I be?

Logo for On1yHad I reached too late? How much had I missed? Had I missed the key part/s? Would my determination have gone waste?

All those answers in the next and final part of this two-part piece…

And where does all this determination come from? Of course, from being vegan.

Cover pic for this post with the calling card of the play and my comment

Irficionado | Play | ‘Amrapali’

Logo for Irficionado series

The Theatre Nisha logoIt seems Theatre Nisha read my review of their last staged play, Gallantly Fought the Queen, based on the life of Rani Lakshmibai. For they seem to have incorporated the suggestions I made there into one of their latest staged plays, Amrapali. Well, technically, Amrapali has been on for some time. But it was finally satisfying to watch a rather rich production (content-wise) from Theatre Nisha, after two somewhat let-down productions (Gallantly and, before that, Flowers).

Amrapali, also in contrast to the previous two plays I had watched, was staged free. (And no, that isn’t the reason I liked it. In fact, because it was good, I felt they should have charged a nominal fee out of respect for the effort put in.) Also, watching the third straight monologue play from Theatre Nisha, I was able to possibly get the group’s strategy. I think they come out with these monologues as experiments, and the ones that click (Flowers and this one seem to have done well so far), they keep adding to, embellishing and enriching. The first shows seem less slick (I think Gallantly was in the initial stages of, well, being staged, but Flowers and Amrapali have had good runs by the time I caught them), and therefore a bit disappointing, but if the group feels they’re onto something, they don’t let go and keep chipping away until they get at least half a gem.

A calling card for Theatre Nisha's play, Amrapali

Anyway, enough theorizing and back to Amrapali. So, Amrapali seems to have woven in the suggestion I made of the one actor playing all the different characters. Janani Narasimhan, who played the courtesan, did so, and with aplomb, modulating her voice very effectively and perceptibly for the multiple characters, right down to the body language. Janani also moved around the four-sided venue, calibrating her movements, so that no one part of the audience felt tuned out. (Though I did catch one guy on the opposite side nodding off for the first part of the play, but that could be because he was done with his weekend. The venue, Spaces, is right next to the immensely popular and populated Besant Nagar Beach, or more fondly, Bessie, which has tons of eateries, hang-outs, activities, or in short, distractions.)

Actor Janani Narasimhan in and as AmrapaliJanani was also a very stoic performer, acting her solo part through the heat and sweat. I saw first sweat-beads form and then turn into rivulets and stream down her face, but she battled through them. (I’m guessing also the make-up was smudge-proof.) Compare this with most folk in the audience making fans out of anything they could get their hands on: the play flyer, newspapers, face towels, their hands; plus, the prescient had got actual hand-fans.

On the flip side, Janani did get some of her pronunciations wrong, and I also thought she was a bit of a miscast, as Amrapali – according to the writer of the play itself, V Balakrishnan, the director and force behind Nisha – was supposed to be a woman of extraordinary beauty. Which is why she was designated the courtesan in the republic of Vaishali. Nevertheless, matching the looks to the role is more of a movie necessity; in theatre, talent reigns supreme. So, nothing really to take away from Janani.

V Balakrishnan, founder and director of Theatre NishaBut even better than Janani’s performance, and which is why I loved the play so much, was the writing. Bala has invested a lot into the script; it’s easy to see that he wrote it with love and care and kept perfecting with each staging. I especially loved the piece on how an apsara’s breasts are useless, “mere ornaments, for decoration”, as they are not able to produce milk, and therefore any kid they beget, they can’t nurture. Amrapali, in fact, is one such child.

The skillful writing also shows in the symmetry of the play, though this could very well be the same in most accounts of the courtesan’s life: Amrapali, toward the end of her life, on relinquishing her erstwhile duties and taking to the teaching and principles of the Buddha, takes up habitat just where her earthly father had found her – under the mango tree. (That’s why she’s given her name, the sprouts of a mango tree.) The symmetry is sealed with Janani / Amrapali reciting the same Sanskrit lines at the end of the play as at the beginning; only, at the end, it’s with their meaning.

Kudos to Janani, Bala and everyone at Theatre Nisha for this fine endeavour. Would have loved it even more if the heat wasn’t such a sapper and as someone for the previous play had suggested, “there had been an AC at the (open) venue”. But then, as a member of Nisha had responded, “Spaces wouldn’t be the same that way”.

Chandramandapa at Spaces, where the play was staged

Chandramandapa at Spaces, where the play was staged

You can find out more about Theatre Nisha on their website: Theatre Nisha

Cover pic for this post with an image of a tuk-tuk speeding by in traffic with the headline 'Geography? Or something else?'

Three-wheeling Culture, Free-wheeling Culture

My latest piece for thREAD, The Hindu’s online segment. After two pieces based around Bollywood, consciously decided to write about something else. And what better new place to do so than with Bangkok, which I recently visited? Find the published piece at the mentioned link and the original piece (with different visualization than on thREAD) below.

This piece on thREAD

When in Bangkok, take the tuk-tuk, I guess.

My friend and I had had a severe day in the sun. (Thailand is at the same coordinates as the southern half of India, and therefore, no less hot.) We had walked around Grand Palace, deciding eventually not to go in as it was swarming with tourists; it felt like a Noah’s ark of the world’s various nationalities, races and skin shades. We did walk all through Wat Pho complex though, which houses the famous Reclining Buddha, viewing almost all the pagodas and stepping into a few of them, and even caught a short documentary on respecting the iconography of the Buddha, mercifully in an AC stall. The iced tea, freezing lolly and cold fruits only offered so much respite. So, after finishing our excursion, we ambled to the nearby Tha Tien pier to cool down, with the water flowing by and the multitudes of boats (literally more Noah’s arks) coasting along. However, the waters too provided only so much comfort. So, clothes sticking and legs shrieking, we decided to call it a day and head to the hotel.

We tried to hail a taxi, in fact, many of them, but to little avail. It’s a very touristy area, and with that heat, all the farangs (Thai for ‘westerners’) had the same idea – be in the cold cocoon of an AC on wheels. Plus, for the same reasons, the few free drivers were refusing to ply by the meter. And then, in that heat-wave, my friend had a brainwave. “How about a tuk-tuk?”

I had thought this would be something I’d do on day four or five (it was only day two), but seized by spontaneity and perhaps a sense of mini-adventure, my eyes widened and my head nodded.

The tuk-tuk drivers though were no less non-compliant than the cab drivers (or Chennai’s in-famous autokaarans), and it took us a while to get one at our price. I think we finally managed only because both parties wanted desperately to get out of the heat and get moving.

As we sat down and the driver fired up the engine, my friend fired me up too, “Oh, this is going to be fun. We’re going to feel like Bond in that commercial.

Well, it didn’t, as Bangkok’s roads are as congested as many Indian metros’ during peak hours, plus the City of Angels kind of lives up to its name: drivers are more disciplined – way more disciplined – than people back home, allowing pedestrians right of way/walk all the time. So, we moved along more like Brosnan post-Bond.

Which actually proved to be quite good. Thanks to the easy pace, we were able to catch several sights and scenes that we hadn’t paid much attention to in the confines of the cab to the Palace. Plus, with the tuk-tuk open at the back too, even as we were cooling off, our heads were rotating avian-like in the three open directions. Corner temples, street-food kiosks, Buddha statues and elephant figures in crafts’ stores, high-rise after high-rise, bikers zipping past, fishermen making their way back with their catch… It was a swift montage of Bangkok. And the tuk-tuk being open on three sides helped: you could catch a complete story, like multiple pics stitched together on your smartphone photo app to provide a panoramic view. Why, just when I was marveling how self-regulated the traffic was – compared with riders and drivers back in India plying across every motorable and creating new ones – a duo zipped past on the pavement… in the opposite direction. They were gone by the time I swiveled around to catch them through the back-view. Turning back, my friend and I exchanged smiles. So, it doesn’t happen only in India.

Side view of a tuk-tuk seen through a car

We returned to the hotel, happy with knocking several items off our Bangkok to-do list (including a vehicular one) in one day, and had a Bond moment after all. Not having the exact fare, we let the driver “keep the change”. He beamed back like the manic motorman at the end of the Bond spot. (Was he the same guy, now 20 years older?)

Easing off in the hotel room, I looked back at the day, especially the scenes and sounds during the tuk-tuk ride. I was particularly fascinated by how the tuk-tuk is open on all but one side, and even on the sides, much more than autos back home. For the rains, it seems they do put on plastic sheets, but these are transparent, so you can still see the outside. Also, I did notice a safety cord rolled up on the embarkment side that could be fastened to prevent passengers from spilling out during a specially hefty swerve and becoming roadkill. I also recalled several tuk-tuks crammed with people, something like Chennai’s share autos. (These were all Thai folk; the farangs preferred to hire the tuk-tuks only for themselves, just as friend and I.) So, I guess being so open is a practical thing – to allow air for all the passengers when it’s packed. Or on similar lines, a geographical consideration – with so much heat around, you don’t want your commute to become hot too, so to allow criss-cross-ventilation. Or maybe even a tourism thing – enable visitors to catch a grand sweep of the surroundings, both horizontally (shops and stores) and vertically (skyscrapers), without the need to crick or crane their neck. Sweet.

I then started thinking of tuk-tuks, or autos, back in India. The way they are designed according to the geography and climate of the place.

A Chennai autorickshawIn Chennai, autos are painted a bright orange-yellow (compared with all-black with just a band of yellow in Mumbai, where I’ve lived the longest and “lived in autos”), perhaps to reflect off the city’s immense heat and thus provide additional comfort to passengers. (For the same reason, why can’t they ply by the meter?)

A Bombay / Mumbai autorickshawI also find that the sides of the auto’s roofs in Chennai don’t come down as much as they do in Mumbai (in Mumbai, they come to a bit below the average Indian male’s eye-level), perhaps to allow more air to come in.

I continued exploring in my head. Goa’s autos have a door, possibly to keep out the sand and dust as, I guess, many of them ply to beaches and into village belts, which actually begin soon after city areas.

A Delhi autorickshaw

Delhi’s autos are yellow and green. Light colours, again I guess to not absorb the city’s torrid summer heat. The relatively recent e-autos in Delhi do look similar to the tuk-tuk, but are much smaller and slower. So, razzmatazzy Thai three-wheeler seems to be special in the fashion of being open on three sides. Wow, geography playing a role in product design. Interesting. Though when you think about it, not entirely surprising.

However, it was only when were at Chatuchak market, known to be the world’s biggest weekend market, that Sunday, after soaking in a bit more of Bangkok, when I sought to buy a model tuk-tuk as a souvenir for home, that it struck me, ‘What if the reason (for the tuk-tuk being so open) is not geographical but cultural?’ Maybe it’s open because… the city is a very open city.

Cover of the book 'Ladyboys'The city, and the country, are known as the Sex Capital of the World. (The City of Angels and the City of Sex Angels?) The city that has “happy-ending” massage bars (straight as well as gay) right next to standard bars. The city where on returning from dinner, you see pleasure-girls sitting in the hotel lobby, chatting merrily with the staff while they wait for their customers, and the staff doesn’t snigger, neither at the pleasure-providers nor at the pleasure-seekers. A city where kathoey, or ladyboys (transgender folk), can be themselves openly and hold jobs not just in the flesh and ancillary trades, but even in “respectable” ones such as retail and airlines (the other places I noticed the country’s almost-ubiquitous ladyboys). A city where twenty-somethings walk around with hot-shorts so short they reveal butt-cheeks. Actually, just one. (Or was that because she had got out from the wrong side of a… tuk-tuk?) So, why would the tuk-tuk here not be open? After all, what’s to hide? And who’s judging? At least not, um, openly.

The inside of a Bombay / Mumbai autorickshawAnd maybe the same applies to three-wheelers back home. Maybe Mumbai’s autos are black and the sides of the roof come a little lower to shroud you a bit, like a burqa. The black outside (the burqa analogy again) also makes it a bit dark inside, so that fellow commuters can’t have a proper peer-in, in a city that is high on high-rises but low on privacy. For the same reason, perhaps the sides of the roof are just below eye-level so you avoid making eye-contact with other commuters.

Maybe Chennai’s autos are designed to be, or at least feel, as spacious as deeply-desired thani veedus (independent homes): there’s ample light and air coming through. And people looking in is perhaps not such an issue for a city that has middle-aged men walking around in those veedus in vests or even bare-chested and with veshtis hoicked up much of the time.

Neon sign for 'Mumbai Open 24 Hrs'And what about Goa’s doored autos? That I’ll leave to uncover during my next holiday there, but it does bring me to this question. If privacy is so coveted in a place like Mumbai, how come the autos there are not Goa-style, with doors? Ah, in a city that never sleeps, one that’s ever on the run, in India’s Financial Capital, in time-strapped Mumbai, who has the time to open and close public-vehicle doors, that too when they are in rapid transit? See, it really seems to be a culture thing.

Cover pic for this post with the Meena Tai's logo and the text 'Bhegan-phrendly?'

IrfindingVegan | Meena Tai’s | Vegan / Friendly

IrfindingVegan Logo

Read the prologue of this piece here: Meena Tai’s – Prologue

So, last Friday, at dinner time, I found myself at the portals of the three restaurants. This time, the manager was different. (Last time, it was a Bengali-speaking guy, and it later struck me whether Pricol was aiming for national and international integration: Maharashtrian, Parsi, Bengali, and African.) This time, it was a guy with a Christian name, that too a Biblical one, Gabriel, and I became certain of the integration bit. Gabriel was pleasant, like all hotel / restaurant managers, I guess. But he didn’t need to guide me about which cuisine I was interested in. Maharashtrian food was calling this man born in one city of Maharashtra (Nagpur) and stayed in another city of the ‘Great Land’ for the longest time (Bombay / Mumbai). Meena Tai’s it was going to be. The Parsi dudes would have to wait for another time.

Interiors of Meena Tai'sMeena Tai’s is trying for homely – so they don’t have Bombay’s famous street food ‘Karan-Arjun’, vada pav and misal pav. And homely is the feeling you get when you step in. It’s peaceful, quiet, like you stepped into a home in a Maharashtrian village, with mellow Marathi songs playing in the background. A few ditties down, even the other tai, Asha, shows up on the playlist. The relaxing atmosphere is enhanced by blue accents all around and the homely ambience accentuated by the jars of spices and pulses in a recess and various cooking instruments of yore displayed on the walls.

A server in another restaurant wearing the traditional Marathi kurta and topi

I take my seat, the server comes with the menu and wearing the rustic Marathi manoos outfit – white kurta and topi – and I wonder for a minute if I could speak with him in Marathi. Then, I look at the name on his tag, and am not sure. ‘Sasti’. That doesn’t sound Maharashtrian (in fact, that means ‘cheap’, or to be less c-rude, ‘inexpensive’ in Hindi), but from the little I know, that doesn’t sound Tam either. So, I let out very slowly, “Are… you… Maharashtrian…?” “No, I’m local,” he offers. And since he does so in English, I proceed to speak in that common language.

He makes the standard Indian restaurant query, “Are you veg or non-veg?” The restaurant – tasteful, refined and all, so far – looks like it could stand up to the IrfindingVegan test, and I decide to chuck my roundabout way of asking so (“Does it have any milk, cream, butter, curd…”) and go straight up, “Actually, I’m vegan… You know what that is?” He takes a moment before responding, “Yes, you don’t have dairy…” “And honey,” I complete. Sasti at once points me to the bottom of the page on the menu, which has icons for Dairy, Gluten, Nuts and Chilli. I. Am. Impressed. And also think, Clever strategy. Show which items have dairy, thus helping out both lactose-intolerant and vegan patrons. So, while not vegan, vegan-friendly for sure, at least in their communication.’

The veg starters' menu at Meena Tai's

Note the legends for gluten, nuts and dairy below

I think of asking him for suggestions, but decide to go with, um, my gut feel. I’m not too hungry. So, decide on a drink (sol kadhi, coconut milk with kokum) and a starter (mini matar karinji, deep-fried stuffing of peas). I check with him whether the karinji will be too oily. He replies in the negative. Cool. I ask him to leave the menu behind in case I have the appetite for dessert: I saw a couple of items with no dairy icons.

Kollywood director, Mani Ratnam, and his actor wife, SuhasiniAnd while I’m waiting for the food to come and flipping through the dessert section, in step a couple of folk that will have my Chennai friends and acquaintances envying me for a long time: Mani Ratnam and Suhasini Maniratnam, arguably Kollywood’s leading power couple. However, they decide to party with the Parsi boys and so take the stairs. That’s ok, I think; I’ll be loyal to my Maharashtrian history.

However, the food was taking a bit – I guess they also believe in not rushing things (believers of slow food?) – so I decided to go and speak with Gabriel, especially about the power couple that had just ascended the stairs. Gabriel smiled even more and shared, “This is a VIP neighbourhood, and you have lots such folk coming in. Why, Dhanush too stays close by.” OK, not too hot about that one. I decide to put him through the vegan test too, and he too passes. In fact, he does one better. When I tell him I also plan to hang out with the Parsi boys next time, he feels uneasy for me, suggesting I won’t find anything there. I reassure him: “I will find at least one or two items there, don’t worry, and what I don’t, I’ll check if they can make vegan.” And if not, I can always come here again, right? Well, that is, if the food too ends up scoring like the ambience and the people (somehow, ‘staff’ seemed too coarse for such genteel ‘staff’).

I go back, the food comes, and the Parsi bawas can wait: I’m visiting Meena’s again very soon, with a bigger appetite. The sol kadhi is obscenely good. In fact, it almost tastes like curd. So, I summon Sasti. “Are you sure there is no curd in this?” He reassures me. To be doubly sure, I have a sip in front of him. I again get that curdy feeling. “Sure?” “Absolutely. But the taste could be due to the kokum.” “Hmm. OK.”

 

This is a bit of a moot point. Some vegans look for vegan substitutes for non-vegan foods and so some product-makers go to the extent of making some vegan food taste like non-vegan food, especially meats, and in this case, curd. However, I’m not sure any vegan wants their food to taste like something they’ve given up for very strong reasons.

I have the kadhi with some more assurance now, and clarity attained, it seems to taste heavenly: it’s playing a perfect orchestra of sweet, sour, heavy, light, smooth, silky. OK, not the last one.

A plate of karinjisI proceed to pick up the first of the six karinjis that await me. They don’t look too deep-fried, as Sasti had assured me. These folk seem true to their word, I see. I take a bite, and Meena Tai appears in the chair opposite me, looking on as I savour her made-from-the-heart karinjis. The karinjis are packed with all the right flavours: light savoury, medium spicy, hint of sweet (thanks to the peas and onions), and the crust perfectly crunchy-crumbly. One karinji, one sip. One coolant-snack combo, one heavenly trip.

My tongue is lilting with all the right flavours, I don’t want to ruin the taste, or better put, I want the taste to linger, plus am a bit full, so decide to not engage with dessert. I ask for the bill. As Sasti comes with the mini-clipboard that bears the bill, I gush, “The food is awesome… Next time, I’ll come with an appetite…” And it’s his turn to complete, “And with your family.” Wow, vegan-friendly. And friendly.

To know more about Meena Tai’s, check out their FB page: Meena Tai’s on FB