My Muse Alexa

I watched last week a film based on the life of Saadat Hasan Manto.

Manto wrote with pencil, on paper. Often, he squatted on his haunches on his chair as he wrote — any chair would do, any desk. He wrote in noisy places, in hot sweaty rooms, in troubled uncertain times, with little money and much criticism. He wrote without traveling far, traveling almost not at all.

People are reading him even now, sixty-three years after he died, aged 42.

I have the use of a Herman Miller Aeron chair for writing, and the Herman Miller Eames chair (with ottoman) for reading. It is not so quiet in my home as in European and American towns, but quiet enough for Bangalore and India. I have a MacBook Pro, an iPad Pro. And, just today, on the day of its launch in India, the iPhone XS Max was delivered me. I am not rich, but I am not poor either — I mean my lot is better than Manto’s was.

Why can't I write like Manto, then? How unkind is my life to me!




Supine on my Eames, I asked for help from Alexa, who is playing “Soothing Jazz” at my request. “Alexa,” I said, and after she’d begun rolling her electric blue eye I asked: “Can you suggest something for me to write?” She didn’t hesitate: “Concepts include,” she began, “The Indus Valley Civilization, The Theory of Relativity … ,” and she ended the list with, “Does that answer your question?”

“No," I said.

“Thanks for your feedback,” she said.

That line of hers sounded cheeky. I cannot answer cheekiness. I fell silent, laptop on my lap, its battery burning my thighs. After a few minutes of doing nothing, I asked again, rather plaintive this time: “Alexa, can you suggest something for me to write?”

“What do you want?” she said.

“I want ideas to write a blog post,” I said, cowed somewhat by this assured voice and tone of woman.

“I found two books for you,” she said, and named two long titles. After she'd suggested the first title, she asked: “Shall I add it to your cart?” I said, “No.” She asked the same question after the second suggestion. “Okay,” I said, too fearful to refuse a second time. “Do you want me to add it to your cart?” she asked the question again, tougher this time: She was wanting the precise word. “Yes!” I said, and she confirmed the title, and said she'd dropped the book in my cart.

Done dealing with me, she went back to playing the music that she had been playing until my interruption. And I, I opened my browser, went to my cart on Amazon, gawped at what Alexa had chosen for me, and deleted it: The One-Hour Content Plan: The Solopreneur's Guide to a Year's Worth of Blog Post Ideas in 60 Minutes and Creating Content That Sells and Hooks.

Then I looked to the Amazon Echo (Plus) in the corner, to see if Alexa was watching me, glaring at me for what I’d gone and done. I can't tell, but she's playing for me that thing everybody loves: Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald: Cheek to Cheek.

There’s a lesson here for me: Don’t mess with that rich man’s woman.


Happy in Hampi

  Hampi: Photo from a previous trip

Hampi: Photo from a previous trip

“Is it cheaper booking with you?” I asked her. “I have Booking.Com open on my laptop.”

“Of course, sir! On Booking.Com they will show a low price on the top and when you add everything from the bottom it will become much more costly.”

I checked on my screen as she spoke. Indeed she had quoted lower. Both had bundled breakfast and dinner, but her offer was inclusive of tax, and when I totted up everything, Booking.Com were 5% higher.

“Tell me the best you can offer,” I said, “so I can confirm right this evening.”

“Of course, sir,” she said, and to my surprise she improved the price right then, by only a bit, but I liked the attitude. But now my human frailty had stirred: The young lady — she sounded young — had in a few minutes transformed me into a confident negotiator.

“Is this the very best you can do? Can you not make it … ?” I tossed a number.

She paused. “One minute sir,” she said. “Take your time,” I said. Faint sounds came from 180 miles away, of tapping on a keyboard. Imagined, maybe.

“I am sorry sir.” Her voice had switched to another, pleasanter tone. Her delivery was slower, drawn out. The words danced out my phone into my ears: “This is the best what I am offering. I am giving you one-day discount, and breakfast and dinner free. In fact, if you want this booking after the 28th September I won’t be able to offer this price, sir.”

“Of course. You have offered me the low-season tariff. It’s very hot in Hampi these days, right?”

“Yes sir. As you yourself have said, I have offered the lowest low-season price. And I am sorry again sir,” she sang, “but it is not hot in Hampi now. Actually it is quite pleasant.”

It is at daytime 34º in Hampi these days. The place is covered in rocks and boulders. You walk on rock a lot in Hampi.

“Okay,” I said, unable to join in her drift. “Please hold the booking. September 16 to September 21.”

“Of course, sir. You will be very happy here. I will send our email in five minutes. The payment link will be there in it.”

🏨 🏨 🏨

Before the mail came I remembered something and called again. She didn’t pick up, but she called back soon enough.

“Yes sir, Mr. Shashi.”

“Sorry. I wanted to ask you something. Small thing actually. Usually hotels do repair and maintenance work during the low season. I need a quiet place …”

“No sir. No such thing is going on. I will personally make sure you have a quiet stay.”

“No maintenance work is going on?”

“No sir. No maintenance is going on.”

“No repairs are going on?”

“No sir. No maintenance is going on.”

I fought to frame the question afresh. She had aroused a sudden suspicion in me: What could be the difference between repairs and maintenance? By the dictionary? In this lady’s lingo? So much would depend on it for six days, five nights. I visualized repeating her assurance before her, before her manager, before her manager’s manager — paid up and checked in and helpless like hell by then.

“Hello? Mr. Shashi? You will be very happy here, sir. Don’t worry.”


🏨 🏨 🏨

That was last evening. I thought for a time, bringing to mind all the sounds I hate in a hotel. Then I thought some more, about heat and happiness. Just before going to bed, I opened the lady’s email and paid.

Going. To Rome …

 Image: skdesign at 123rf.com

Image: skdesign at 123rf.com

From the kitchen below, the sound of grating coconut, the firm tight sound attesting to the strong hand of the maid. From across the street, the howl and indignant screech of sisters fighting — they’re all right, in a few minutes their young blood will come off the boil and they’ll start cooing to the Labrador pup in their next compound.

In the distance, a car with a souped-up exhaust roared as it took off, and fell silent, humbled by the short streets and multiple turns in my quiet neighborhood.

And there’s the twitter of real birds that don’t know Sunday from the workday. They don’t follow a character limit in their tweets and, much like the humans with whom they cohabit, they’re vying to go viral.


🐦 🐦 🐦

It is raining to a changed pattern this year. In the mornings there’s a light drizzle. Towards six in the evening, a powerful downpour comes crashing with the vigor and intensity an invasion, takes hold of the city for a quarter of an hour, and in those minutes every evening one feels this rain is forever, this awesome master, descended from heaven to right terrible wrongs. Just as you’re getting used to such a notion the rain stops altogether, in an instant, and turns into a drip-dripping on the roof, an emptying from the gutters, and goes washing down the street. The evening turns cold, leaving every Bangalorean to invent his own hygge — if he will.

Used to be that it only rained nights in Bangalore.


🌧 🌧 🌧

Right this morning, though, I’m worrying about the weather in Europe. I’m checking the temperatures in Paris and London and Aarhus and Copenhagen and, seeing that it’s about 32 /18 in Rome these days, I’m trying to recall how, for me, 32°c has felt in Europe. As I remember, it feels like 40° in Bangalore, and Bangalore seldom climbs so high.

If you want to know, it’s 27/20 here these days.


🤒 🤒 🤒

I’ve walked on Roman walls in England, gone down to Roman remains before the Notre Dame in Paris, seen Roman relics across the Iberian Peninsula. I’ve been twice on a Mesa in Israel which they call the Masada. It is by the Dead Sea, and there’s a ramp to its top that the Romans built to take the outcrop and a stubborn Jewish habitation on it that held out for almost a year against them. In India, on walking tours in Mylapore in Chennai, and in Madurai, I’ve listened to wide-eyed tour-leaders talking about Romans trading with India. “Their coins have been dug out hereabouts. Coins to buy what?” I’ve endured the feeling of being dragged back to school, seen (as then) some smart another take the shabbash. “Yes! Pepper! And? Yes! Fine cloth!”

Driving back to Bucharest after a day trip to the Black Sea, my host and I stopped at Tropaeum Traiani, built to celebrate Emperor Trajan’s victory over the Dacians. “It seems to me the Romans had huge problems with their wives,” my host said. “To come to die so far from home.” The monument commemorates 3000 legionnaires and auxilia who died for Rome in the battle (of Adamclisi).

I’ve been many times over many years in Milano. For work. Also in Ancona by the Adriatic, to sell my India-manufactured Western innovations. I’ve gone up the hill at Assisi once, at dusk, and walked up and down its streets. I was en route to another customer location then. And, before I forget, my wife and I have holidayed a week in Florence.

But I’ve never been in Rome.


✈️ ✈️ ✈️

On a whim this morning, I pulled out the Rome guidebook by Rick Steeves that I ordered in a moment of vague anticipation a few weeks ago. I opened the Lufthansa app on my iPhone. The rates are high, being punishment for flying at short notice. I’m not sure that hotels have rooms left in August. But I’m going. Next week.

To Rome.

Starbucks On Church Street

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I was sipping a short Americano with soya milk. A short lasts me an hour. Two shorts over two hours is my usual at Starbucks.

On my right, a Sikh, and with him a man who could’ve been Japanese, or Chinese, or Tibetan, but was probably North-East Indian. The table on my left, not taken. The table further left, the last of a row of four two-seaters, taken by a man aged about forty-five, his coffee served cold in a glass, the straw wet on the table. He was concentrating straight ahead.

The Sikh and the North-East Indian both wore shorts. On his feet the Sikh sported black flip flops, and his companion, green soft-shoes. Both men appeared to be marching happily through their thirties.

“The moment the idea hit me I thought of you,” the Sikh man said to the North-Eastern, who laughed. They were bent toward each other, the Sikh’s forearms were folded on the table.

“Believe me,” the Sikh said, it’s true. And it’s no small deal. There will be only millionaires in this thing. Cool forty-million.”

For businessmen in Bangalore, the dollar is the currency of choice, although sometimes they settle for the euro.

A woman walked toward our row, tray in one hand, handphone over her ear, held there by a raised shoulder. She slid under the table left of me. My eyes were on my Kindle (open to Less by Greer) but the black of her skirt and the white of her shirt flashed on my eyes when she curved in. I also took in how she arranged her tray, the croissant, and coffee — her workday breakfast, I presumed.

“He was very good,” she was saying into the phone. “He has energy. He’s aggressive. He’s the guy I want for a partner.”

Her listener — a female voice issued from the phone — said something.

“No, no,” my neighbor answered. “Vikas is too calm. He is too settled under his skin. No energy. His vibes are terrible, I tell you.”

Meanwhile, the Sikh was better detailing his proposal. He was saying, “Let me explain why you’re the perfect fit for this.”

But I’d tuned out of him and his friend. The thin high confident voice of the lady on my left had taken possession of my ears and my mind. Her voice and something about her presence suggested this was a woman in her twenties. By now I’d registered that she was very fair, but I hadn’t seen her face yet, I didn’t see it at all, because just then I shut my Kindle and rose, deciding that this morning, one Americano would do.

Because, you see, in just a few minutes the men on the right and the woman on the left had force-fed me three shots of stimulus, adding to the effects of the Americano, sending me high and making me addled. On top of all that, I‘ve been wearying of business for some time now, and lately any talk of commerce hurls me outdoors, gagging, seeking fresh air.

Walking out, I saw the man at the end of my row still looking straight ahead, to the wall where cups and coffee-presses and other Starbucks stuff were on display. Tall man. Grey hair gifted with a touch of bounce and wave. His skin had the sheen and texture of the rich and accomplished, but his eyes were soft and collapsed and watery — the eyes of the defeated.

It was sunny when I stepped into the street, Church Street. It was not hot, it was not too cool. I chose to walk off the sidewalk, away from the shadows, thinking of Vikas whom the fair lady had so vehemently rejected. With what eyes was Vikas seeing the world, this calm man whom I don’t know, whom I’ve never seen?

Langford Town From The Back Seat

  A Shop in Langford Town

A Shop in Langford Town

You enter Langford Town at the complex of the old graveyards, existing from colonial times, a good expanse of them, parceled out to a couple of Christian faiths, Hindus, the Shia Moslems, the Sunni Muslims. The street you enter is Berlie Street, which starts wide and begins to narrow, inching inward as you progress, and you fret at horns that blare demanding overtaking room when there’s no room to give. Berlie Street is the longest street in Langford Town, embracing a half of it in a U-shape.

The other streets in Langford Town bear their old names as well: Alexandria Street. Bride Street. Rose lane. Walker Lane. Norris Road. Curley Street. Names suggesting decent beginnings, diminished now, and one would think a neighborhood with street-names like these would have at the least one nice bakery, one cozy cafe, one cute restaurant. I haven’t seen any but a florist, and a dealer in antiques whose wares seem more like riffraff from broken homes, but I experience Bangalore mostly in the back seat of my car, casting occasional glances at it. It might be that Langford Town prefers to be private, with least visitors, for fear that a busybody might apply himself to renaming their streets, localizing them, altering their character.

Langford Town falls in the Shantinagar constituency whose elected representative is N.A Harris, a third-term Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA). As is in vogue in Bangalore for many years now, posters bearing the face of Haris ornament the streets in his domain. His is among the better faces: there are faces of other leaders that are regularly hoisted across the city, most of them murky and suggestive of no good intentions — you wouldn’t want your child to see them. The posters wish, at various times, happy birthday to the MLA, greetings from the MLA to his electorate for Eid, Easter, Sankranti, Pongal, Deepavali, Christmas. It’s all a vigorous and successful onslaught to burn Haris into our psyche.

Haris is not bad, even if Langford Town could be better. On the eve of elections an NGO rated him the best-performing MLA in Bangalore, which has 28 MLAs. Speaking for myself, I’ve been able to bear his posters without too much animus — complaining only occasionally to my wife next to me in the car that Haris foists himself to an excess upon his electorate.

I like the faces I see in the flesh in Langford Town: Tibetan, Northeast Indian, North Indian, South Indian. People from all faiths have tucked themselves into this tight little neighborhood: Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem, Christian, Jain. A little black statue of Ambedkar in a square there attests to the presence of the vulnerable Hindus. The neighborhood lacks spaces, there’s no parking room at all, but there’s charm in the diversity of the people of Langford Town.

A Christian neighbor in Rajmahal Vilas, where I live, told me once: “You work at Electronics City? You pass through Brigade Road, then. You know the Shantinagar MLA? Haris! Handsome man, you know. Dynamic. We meet often at the Catholic Club …”

These recent rain-soaked days, Haris has multiplied significantly his posters. He is asserting himself, because there’s a new government in our province, and some ministerial posts have yet to be filled. As a third-term MLA, Haris feels entitled to a berth, and he is flexing muscle, which a recent incident had cramped for a while.

It happened a few weeks ahead of the elections. It happened with Haris’s son who went with his friends to a cafe at eleven at night. Haris’s son’s leg scraped another customer’s outstretched limb. The customer asked Haris’s son to take care: He had a broken leg, it was in a cast, and the man had rested it across the seat before him.

Haris’s son didn’t like to be asked to take care — he is the son of a very important man, after all. What happened afterwards is widely reported. Let me say it was all big news, and although Haris’s smile didn’t fade on his posters, it put the formidable man’s chances of even running for elections in doubt. But Haris prevailed. He ran, he won, and is now reaching for a bigger prize.

Bold and resilient, he now has his son’s face on every one of his posters. The biggest face on the posters is Haris’s. The next biggest is his son’s. Per protocol. Then there the other faces, smaller, of men who tend to Haris’s muscles, keep them strong, ease the occasional cramp.

It helps Haris that his son has looks that compete with his: lanky body, loping gait, a trimmed beard on an oval face that is in keeping with his lean frame, eyes behind sleek sunglasses, and a white smile. If I commute a few more years more through this neighborhood, I might well be treated every workday to Haris’s son’s face, succeeding Haris’s.