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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Life in Chennai #21: Pirates in Madras!

Avast me hearties! Haul out th’ 10 pounders! Hoist the jolly roger! Shore the rigging and drop anchor! There be riches in this here exotic port, landlubbers ripe for the pillage. Smartly ya scalleywags and show em yer mettle!

Arrr! T’is be Cap’n Morgan “Savage” Roberts to tell ye it be International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

My pirate name is:

Captain Morgan "Savage" Roberts

Even though there's no legal rank on a pirate ship, everyone recognizes you're the one in charge. You've got style and swagger. And if they don't like your singing, keelhaul the bile rats! Arr!

Get your own pirate name from
part of the network

'ass rye, there do be an International Talk Like a Pirate Day! And it’d be today. Me don’ like repeatin’ me self ya bilge rat! Everyone be in on the bit o’ the high spirit – and the spirits – today, cursin’ and hollerin’ and leerin’ with our good eye. Even Flickr has the jolly roger on its logo today.

Seeing as we old salts and sea dogs are marooned in this here Eastern port of call, we’re in need a proper saloon to sing our shanties and trade our coin and toast our brethr’n across the oceans wide.

And begad! there be such a place! And it be called “Pirates”, fitting for sea dogs like us. Ah, they’ve merried it up nice. Take a gander. Brings a tear to me good eye, a place called “Pirates” in Madras do. And a smile to me face.
Pirate's Bar in Chennai
Photo credit: J.A.

There we’ll be with a mug o’ rum singing tales of monsters o’ the deep, mateys on the account, and lads and lasses fine. Join us for a drink we’re ye may be. Arrrr!
The Pirate costumes of the staff

Photo credit: J.A.

And one more ARRRR! for good measure.

Life in Chennai #20: Jumbled Thoughts & Experiences

I am not sleeping well. My room is stuffy and thick, the heat of the afternoon still trapped in its walls, the fan just swirling warmth onto my face. I get up and do a pooja of sorts on my bed, vigorously shaking droplets of poured water out of my cupped hand onto my sheets, floor and pillow and lie back down. Momentarily cooled, I drift back to troubled dreams and sweat once more.

But I have so many thoughts jumbled and swirling in my head that I cannot sleep.

Crowded bus rides through humid air. I love that. Not having a plan. The friendliness and helpfulness of Indians. Feeling the local expert. Laughing at how far off that is. Girls. New friends and old. Reconnections. Walking darkened streets. Quitting my job for good reasons. The excitement, fear, relief and anxiety of that decision. The poetry of my friends, in person and in print. The joys of Indian food, but also of Domino’s pizza. A bar called Pirates. India beats Pakistan in the Twenty20 match. The annoyance 2 nights of power outages in the last 4. Being seriously sleep deprived. Dancing. Monsoon thunderstorms. Fitting in. The smiles and laughs of bright-eyed children. Never taking enough pictures. New ideas. Home? Home. Girls. Unexpected changes. People I care for. Frustrated tears. Giving up. Trying again. Yoga and Swimming and Motorcycles (not at the same time). Ganesh Jayanthi in clay and blinking neon. The Mylapore Temple. Hare Krishnas. Having 6 missed calls on a Saturday evening. Meeting friends randomly in the street. Beginnings. Endings. Transitions. Possibilities.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sidebar #4: More Random Thoughts from TV

Justifying my laziness, my descriptions of life here in India would not be complete without a post on what I watch and catch on TV. Like anywhere, there are good programs and bad and plenty of commercials. Personally, I mostly watch movies and the Dicovery Channel.

Here are some random things that have occured to me in those deadened hours.


The old grunt-and-shoot action movie Predator produced a remarkable 2 State Governors: Jesse Ventura for Minnesota and Arnold Schwarzenegger for California. I'd say that must be a record if there was any rational reason to regularly count and compare how many futures Governors have appeared in any action movies in the first place. Makes you wonder what poor dialogue, flimsy plots and pyrotechnics has in common with politics doesn’t it...

Catching part of the 1995 movie Johnny Mnemonic (only worthy because it is based on stories by the excellent future-noir writer William Gibson), I had to laugh at how dated its projection of future technology was already. Johnny is special because he can store a whopping 80GB in his brain as a secret courier. 80 gigs? Wow. Today you can get the same storage in an ipod for a few hundred bucks. I certainly hope my brain hold more than Johnny’s, or my ipod. Just goes to show though how fast technology can outpace fiction.

I thought it was funny that they play Shakespeare in Love here with subtitles for the English accents. No joke. I didn’t pay attention though to see if they were the same. They aren’t always, although I’d hope those on TV would be better than most. Most of the ones on the pirated DVDs that dominate the video scene here are so bad to as to be funny. Watching the first 5 minutes of The Last King of Scotland without sound but with subtitles and I could not figure out what was going on. They were not even close.

Discovery Channel Programs:

What is it about Discovery Channel programs that suck you in?

Tonight I was watching a program about the big cats of Africa. Did you know that when a lioness is in heat, in order to get pregnant she may have to mate 100s of times (and not always with the same male) and will mate twice an hour for up to 4 days. Often several females of the pride will go into heat at the same time with the alpha male mating with all of them until he tires and one of the lower males gets a chance. Social little kitties. And we joke about rabbits! (likely because it is less a good idea to poke fun at lions) But being slightly serious, the program also estimates that each lion will mate 3000 times for each cub that will survive its first year. Beyond our technology (and opposable thumbs), it is certain that our much superior ability to procreate (and again, we make fun of rabbits...yeah Kettle...) is at least as important a factor in our dominance of this planet.

I don’t know why the lion was ever considered the king of beasts though. The tiger is way bigger, meaner and tougher.

But whatever the lion’s position on the savannah and the tiger in the jungle, cheetah cubs are definitely the cutest – fuzzy furballs with big eyes and all the curiosity of domestic kittens. Cheetahs are amazing creatures to watch running, so fast and sleek and efficient. The adolescent cubs though, like all young, are far less agile and funny to see learning to stalk.

Now, the leopard however is smaller than the lion and slower than the cheetah, but is the most adaptable of the three. It will eat most anything from beetles to antelope far larger than itself. It will live in any climate across Asia from the savannah to the jungle to the snowy mountains, is excellent climber and doesn’t mind water. I think if I was a cat then I’d definitely be a leopard.

Now wasn’t that interesting and educational!

I caught a program today about base jumping from the top of Angel Falls. Oh my God, so cool. Sorry mom and dad, but I have to say I’d love to do that if I got the chance.

I caught a cooking program the other day where a UK chef was showing us the wonders of Indian cuisine and this week focusing on Tamil and South Indian regional dishes. It was great fun to see Chennai in the backdrop (as an aside, it is actually quite easy to pick out the major Indian metropolises on TV due to architectural styles and even more so, the colour scheme of the auto rickshaws. As one program coverage switched its stock background shots, I could easily differentiate Chennai from Bangalore from Delhi based on the ricks).

He did a great job showing how simple much of the cuisine is to cook and which wonderfully colourful spices form the core of all Tamil cooking (especially turmeric, chilli & curry leaves). He kept calling the city Madras though, which is a bit colonial considering the city is now named Chennai and most people use the new name.

But then he explained the venerable, but simple masala dosa and showed his total lack of local savvy. He goes to Saravanna Bhavan, a popular and recommended chain and then proceeds to explain how you break off chunks of the crispy dosa, spoon some masala onto the piece and eat it like a taco or brochetta...using both hands! I really wanted to reach into the TV and slap him. Anywhere in India, one of the most basic and first rules everyone learns is that you only eat with your right hand. No using your left hand. No using both to cup the dosa. Just no OK.


I've written some about this before, but again for the record: 1 in 4 commercials on all channels are for age and beauty products. Ponds, Olay, Dove and a dozen others local and international compete to make you believe you are ugly, unsuccessful and un-marriable unless you improve your skin and hair using their products. Age spots, glow, shine, smoothness, miracles and above all lightening all get pushed with campaigns tailored to hit every fear, insecurity and societal weakness. It’s disgusting and a plague on ourselves. And India’s caught the virus as firmly as any country.

Indian car commercials are even more outrageous in the romantic driving image than North American ones. Wide, empty highways, smooth roads, fast speeds. Here in India? Where? Trying to sell these images and roads as anything realistic in India is a seriously tall tale.

Based on the image they are trying to project and strong brand message of “High performance. Delivered”, Tiger Woods for Accenture has got to be the most ideally suited spokes-person I’ve ever seen. He just oozes clearly recognizable brand on his own that conveys hard work, perseverance, detail and reinvention as the source of excellence. Of reaching the top then starting again. And of course Accenture wants to convey that exact message that even the top companies need to retool, reinvent and research-based insight. “Having the right information. Making the right decision. Looking for ways to improve.” One of the cleanest current brand images I can think of. And what is remarkable is that it is for consulting services that are not easily differentiable and far tougher to package than a product. Tiger Woods is bar none the best sports hero to come out since Michael Jordan. Wonder how long it is before he starts doing movies with Looney Toons too.

McDonalds on the other hand though has a terrible current set of commercials here and ones that I can only assume are culturally tuned only to India. Their tag line is “call for happiness” somehow trying to connect their brand of food with euphoric giddiness and exuberance, that if you call for McD’s delivery, your life and arguments with your girlfriend will be solved. I have yet to see such an over-the-top image. I mean come on! No legal substance possibly can be believed to make such a turn-around in your evening. Indians are not ignorant consumers, but perhaps they find it funny-stupid not just stupid. Maybe McD’s just got snowed by the ad people. I don’t know, but it is not even annoying, just embarrassing. Making it even worse, their call number is 66-000-666. Not such a good number I figure for the Christian population, particularly when you’re going for associations with happiness.

You know when commercials are forced to say a “conditions apply” statement and say it really fast and in one breath at the end of the commercial, like “closed course, professional driver. If you’re a dumb ass and try this you cannot sue us” or one they use seem to have to use here, “mutual funds are subject to market risk. Read the offer statement closely”?

Yeah, well you should hear them do that in Tamil. Holy shit can they get those statements out quickly!

And that’s entirely enough TV for one article...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Culture #11: The Wine Shop Revisited

See my earlier post on learning the value of things at the wine shop the hard way. Here is an update on a recent purchase.

I am buying 2 Kingfisher beer. I give him Rs 500.

He gives me Rs 270 back. I look at it briefly, call him back over and point out it isn’t enough change.

He tells me the price is Rs 220.

Of course 500 minus 220 is not actually 270, but I let that one go and focus on the bigger problem: that the beers are in fact only Rs 60 each so the price is only Rs 120.

He nods OK, OK. Takes the money and remakes change.

This time he gives me back Rs 290 with a smile. We're getting closer, but still short.

I patiently do the math for him one more time: 60 Rupee (pointing at one), 60 Rupee (at the other). 120 Rupee vilai. Rs 380 michapanam kudunga Boss ("change please give") I say smiling, but firmly, looking at him . We’re both pretending it is simply a mistake of math.

He takes the money one more time, does some fancy money swapping at his till box and proffers Rs 380 this time. Finally!

So an updated warning: you really have to keep your eye on what you should get back because in the speed of the exchange, the busy counter and their hope you don't know the cost, they will definitely screw you. But they’re not usually bothered if you call them on it. Funny guys.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sidebar #3: The Legend of the Greasepole Game

A big shout-out to Rob Burke who made this all happen!

I am deliriously giddy as I relive all the fun and memories of my university experience.

The Legend of the GreasepoleSo back in University, one of my good friends Rob decided it would be a great idea to make a video game based on one our orientation rituals, the Climbing of the Greasepole. I think we were drinking. But good idea or bad idea, the idea eventually came to fruition and our Class has an actual video game built around it and containing all the friends, faces and voices that made my 4 years (ahem…5 years) there wonderful. It even has our year song (More Human Than Human by White Zombie).

Of course in the age of Facebook, as the story goes, it was only so long before someone said, “Hey Rob, so when are you going to release the game for Xbox360?” And because he is just far too bright and keen for anyone’s good, he did, and hot off the presses I’ve got myself a copy and am happily, grinningly demoing it on my laptop (is “demoing” a word? It is a conversational word, but Word doesn’t seem to like the word so maybe it isn’t a word, at least according to Word…OK, I’ll stop now. Random jolts of joy just jar me jumpy).

Greasepole 2005So what is this game about? Really hard to explain, or to explain remotely well, but basically…at the culmination of Frosh Week at Queen’s Engineering, the first years – aka Frosh, as they shall for ever known by their upper years – are summarily dumped in a muddy pit of cold water and told to climb a well-greased goalpost. Only once they retrieve the tam (Scottish headgear) well nailed to the top, will they be considered a year. If it takes all day, so be it. As the upper years say, “We’ve got plenty of beer and no where else to be.”

Greasepole 2It started back way back in the mid 50’s and has been the centrepiece of orientation ever since. Classes boast of the fastest time or laugh at the slowest (one year in the 70s had to come back a second day, the clock ticking the whole time). Eras are marked by when girls were first allowed to join in or when they switched from axle grease to lanolin due to changing environmental regulations. The pole has been stolen by rival faculties, upper years (including ours) and schools and ransomed back. It has been a lightning rod (to use the pun) for Administration criticism and rallying point of change. It is extremely important to the Society. The climbing is about teamwork and bonding and despite some heavy taunting by the upper years, everyone wants your year to succeed, eventually. Nothing like the thrill of achieving something pointless, but coveted and having your new classmates and all the upper years celebrating as one.

But to really understand it and see the whack of pictures from its many decades, you should delve into the detailed companion compendium for the game, now hosted online here. I highly recommend it as a fun and in-depth insight into who the hell these crazy purple-clad engineering students are and what damage 4 years of conditioning have done to my psyche. But then, I wrote it as a contribution to the game (I’m also one of the crowd voices, how fun is that!). I had a lot of fun digging into the archives and old papers for the history, stories and photos. It was my first attempt at writing anything public, a long-ago prelude to this blog come to think of it. It’s got some good stuff in it and some of the only archival records online (the Queen’s archives are, I hear, way behind the times and still resisting digitazation). I’m mildly embarrassed that it also contains record of some my early and feeble attempts at poetry. Poetry, I’ve learned, is not my format. I had forgotten Rob had posted it. But oh well, points for bravery I suppose. :-) Mercifully, I’ll stick to blog writing and story telling.

Game SreenshotSo the game version puts you in charge of a spectator with the task of stopping the Frosh from climbing. Like lemmings (and like real Frosh, come to think about it) the AI Frosh aren’t so bright, but they are persistent little monkeys and get better with time, building successive pyramid layers towards the top. In your arsenal, you’ve got an array of wacky and odd-seeming items mined from our dubious traditions to distract, disrupt, weaken or pick off the frosh like the happy, little targets they are. It is a game against the clock and you hold them off as long as you can and get a few laughs along the way.

The game is just plain fun and silly all its own, full of frivolous elements and inside jokes, but what really has me giddy it is how perfectly it captures and brings me back to my time there. The game simplifies life back into the things we most cherished (pizza and beer), the things we most coveted (our jackets and iron rings) and the things we most feared (physics exams), where we belonged (discipline) and our stereotyped rivalries (other faculties).

But deepest of all, it brings back the people. The characters are actual digital representations of my friends and classmates, their faces and voices bringing a stream of good memories, funny stories and questionable adventures. I had many really good times at these events and with these people. And to be reminded in full-motion glory was a treat.

I remember our day in the sound studio recording the effects, laughing at the script, “You want us to say what?” Every voice in the game pulls a name and a smile. It is like we were all back there for a moment. It’s like nearly being famous, but without the paparazzi. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and one memory. So how many words and how many memories is a whole game worth?

Once the game is out of beta, I’ll post a link to it for anyone who wants to know what this is all about (don’t download the game from the LegendWeb site as it is the original version). You may get it, you may not, but it is a fun diversion either way.