Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Problems anyone?

We live in a world of plenty. We are spoilt for choices and one can find at least one alternative which fits their need perfectly. And even then, stress is rampant, stress about whether the choice you made was right, stress about lifestyle, our relationships, good schools for our children, bigger cars, larger houses, getting good house-help, about taking that annual vacation to an international destination, about that elusive club membership, about so and so who was in school / college with you earning more than you and going places and you not and the list just goes on. 

Most of us always move about with a cloud above our heads, worry lines etched large on our faces encouraging people to ask us if everything is ok and if they can do anything to help. Our answer to this is “It’s life. Will manage somehow.” And in this manner, we move through life, the years adding up as also the value of our so called sense of self worth and the amassment of possessions leading to even more stress and thus the cycle continues. Will we ever get out of this? Will we ever be able to be happy with such important decisions weighing on our minds? Nothing can ever reduce the criticality of these things in life. Or can it?

Cut to my daily commute to work in a Mumbai local train in the general 1st class coach. It had been crowded as usual and finally there was a mass exodus at both Bandra and Dadar stations leaving the coach relatively empty. At Bandra, this very old lady entered. She was very frail with wrinkled skin covered with the traditional tattoos usually seen on people in rural Maharashtra and dressed in a dark green saree and a checked pallu that had seen better days. She was hobbling along using a short length of bamboo and carrying a small jute bag in her other hand. She was peering out of rheumy eyes and begging from the gents in the compartment. Some of them were giving her coins and she was dropping them in the jute bag with a word of gratitude.

I have always had this soft corner for aged people and it always breaks my heart to see them tottering on a busy roadside, trying to get about alone with no one to help them along. I will never forget this one incident when I was returning back from Johannesburg to Mumbai after a office convention and we had a long stopover at Dubai airport before our flight back to Mumbai. We were whiling our time at one of the many food courts there and happened to notice this elderly Indian couple sitting a table not too far off. The old gentleman was slowly making his way to the counter at one of the food stalls. It was pretty evident that they were travelling alone and were also on a stopover just like us. While all of us felt a little sad at seeing them travelling alone, there was with us this soft-hearted friend of mine (who I had barely known then but is now one of my closest friends) who could just not bear it and actually walked over to them and started chatting with them. They turned out to be a gentle couple who were on their way to their son who was settled in the US or Canada. Their son would be waiting to receive them as soon as they disembarked after the long flight over the Atlantic. We all were very much relieved at what now promised to be a happy ending. 

Coming back to the Mumbai local train and this other old lady, she made her way through the compartment collecting a small number of coins before she reached my side of the coach. By now, we were approaching Lower Parel where I would be getting off. To say my heart was at this moment breaking into a million pieces would still be an understatement. I could not stop myself giving some money to the lady but I did not feel any satisfaction from the act, I just felt broken. So she managed to collect a small sum of money here, mine included. But what help would that be even in the short term? The city we live is not kind to homeless, poor people and even less to those who have the added “stigma” of being elderly. What kind of a life must this old lady living on a day to day basis? Even the basic necessities that we all take for granted so easily are nowhere in sight for people like her. Getting through each day without mishap must be such a struggle. Thinking about the sheer misery that these people face makes our so called problems of plenty pale in significance and seem extremely trivial, materialistic and a sham.

It was with such dismal thoughts crowding my mind and a heart heavy with the sense of helplessness that I got off the train at Lower Parel that day. What can I do to make a difference with not just the sole intent of bringing peace to my own guilty heart of being able to lead a charmed life when there were so many human beings who can’t even live like humans? What can anybody do? Even now, I can still see that old, withered face, murmuring her gratitude and blessings, the eyes mirroring their acceptance and resignation to her state and even then a sense of calm reflecting on it. What can I do? 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

I had a dream..

I have a dream.

A line made immortal by the great American activist, Martin Luther King. This one line inspired millions of Americans to strive towards abolishing the rampant racism that pervaded in the USA in those days. We all have dreams and aspirations. Some of these are as idealistic and inspirational as the one above and many others that are a lot more personal, a lot more mundane and a lot more down to earth.

I had a dream, too! And this was one amongst many others as a young professional starting my career way back in 2000, fresh out of MBA school and hurled straight into the chaos a budding dot com company brought with it. Working long hours, burning the proverbial midnight oil, single, unattached (for the most part), all of it seemed exciting and fun at the time. Travelling in crowded Mumbai locals along with like-minded colleagues, trading anecdotes, talking shop and discussing our youthful fantasies was the order of the day. It was in one of these discussions on a train commute on the way back home that I once again heard the magic word “Bullet”. No, this has no reference to bullets of the violent kind which form ammunition for guns and the like. This Bullet was The Bullet or Bull as some called it fondly, the workhorse from the Royal Enfield stable at that time.

To say that it was a name that inspired awe, longing, respect and a lot more feelings in guys (irrespective of their age) would be an understatement. From an early age, I had seen one of those beauties thundering past making all heads turn. I had even seen traffic cops and policemen look at them with admiration in their eyes. In fact, it is an urban legend (yet to be proven) that traffic cops do not stop Royal Enfield riders. The charisma that comes with owning one of them is so high that in the agri-rich belts in Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana etc, it is a status symbol to own one; a true sign that this particular farmer or landlord has truly arrived.

Coming back to the train discussion, my colleague was postulating his dream of owning one someday and that was the moment when I made it mine as well. Having said that, I knew that for someone like me who could just about ride a bicycle and barely manage to ride a automatic scooter, a Royal Enfield was way out of my league. But then, dreams are just that; you can have a dream and not bother about the logic or the lack of logic thereof. From that day on, you could see me turn my head to look whenever one of these machines went past me, some sedately with a deep throated though mellow baritone and others at a much faster clip with their “silencers” spewing out an ear-splitting but musical roar. Their sleek lines, the bold central headlamp, the hand tooled machinery, the widely splayed handlebars and the big, solid and stable looking tires all made their presence felt to me and called out to my heart in the most tantalizing manner.

Over the years, the dream only grew stronger but alas at the same time, the price of the various Royal Enfield models only went up as they started looking better and growing more and more popular. I read a lot about them, spoke to enthusiasts, discovered that there were actual clubs where Royal Enfield owners got together for various events involving their bikes, went on long rides together and helped each other become better riders. I also learnt that a Royal Enfield owner was a much more responsible rider for the most part and that “power” and not “speed” was the buzz word here. All in all, a lot new facets got added to my love for a Royal Enfield including the fact that each bike that came out of the Royal Enfield factory was an individual in its own right and tended to behave differently as such and over years of usage, its rider would get so used to and so attached to it, that riding a so-called identical model would still seem like a different model altogether.

A few years after I got married to S, I shared my dream with her. I expected her to laugh at me or something of that sort but to my pleasant surprise all she said was “We’ll get it someday soon.” With other priorities always coming up in life, a new house, a much needed car, two kids and lot many other associated things, this dream of mine got relegated to a rarely used corner of my brain. Only relegated, mind you and not discarded, still smouldering and alive.

Come April 2014, S said to me “What the heck, let’s go buy your RE on your birthday and I’ll sponsor half of it for you.” In the meantime, I also found out that with my dad being a retired IAF personnel, he was eligible to buying a bike under the CSD quota at reduced rates. So on May 30th, with my heart doing cartwheels, S and I went to RE Brand Store in Bandra and did it! We booked the Royal Enfield Thunderbird 350 in the newly launched Lightning colour. The nice people at the brand store told us that there was at least a 3-month waiting period for this model and I happily acquiesced as I anyway didn't want my beauty to brave the onslaught of the Mumbai monsoons in its very first year.

The monsoons went by and so did October and November. By now, my patience was starting to wear thin and the frequency of my calls to the brand store was going up always to hear the reassuring voice tell me "Next week, sir!" And finally, on December 11th 2014, they called me and asked me to come and take the delivery of my bike the next day. The delivery was to happen from Royal Enfield's workshop in Santacruz as the brand store itself was undergoing some renovation work. My dad and me reached the workshop and there it was! It was yet to be washed but could even then see the large trademark fuel tank, the contoured but strong body and the much loved and dreamt of Royal Enfield logos. I saw the mechanic give it a thorough shower and then buff it dry honing the sheen to perfection. The love for the machine was evident even in the hands of that mechanic who must do this for hundreds of bikes getting delivered each day and even then my bike was still special for him. Told me a lot about the relationship I was just about to begin. Instructions over, I finally wheeled the bike out of the workshop and tentatively tried the kick-start. The engine sputtered and then died down. A second try and this time, the engine held and the motor roared to life. I revved the accelerator a little just for kicks and then with my dad on pillion sailed out onto the main road. That first ride from Santacruz to home was something else. It was like trying to gain mastery over a unruly but powerful and beautiful horse while galloping in a jungle filled with all the animals possible.

Could feel beads of sweat start on top of my head and slowly trickle down my face and my neck inside the helmet as I strained to keep the heavy bike upright in loads of traffic and at the same time maneuver it through rush hour highway traffic without it touching any other vehicle. Am sure my dad was a relieved man when we reached home at long last. At the end of the ride, I realized that it was the Thunderbird that owned me too and not just the other way around.

Since that first time, have ridden my Thunderbird quite a few times and we have both gotten used to each other. I can now say that I at least have an idea of riding it without any major problems or discomfort. It is always a pleasure to feel the powerful 350cc engine vibrate under me, the shivers travelling through my arms and into my body, a sign that all is well. 550 kms done and the first service under the belt, we are now ready and looking forward to explore close by places with a whole new perspective. At least now, I feel worthy enough to think about getting myself some decent riding gear good enough to use while riding this beauty. Have also had the privilege to give pillion rides to S, my kids and few very close people and they have all come back with a sense of wanting more.

I suppose I can keep going on and on but given that there are a lot more roads still to ride on and a lot more places to get to, I shall leave those for a future post. Should have posted a pic here but shall leave that in my mind's eye for now. Once again I say:

I had a dream.