8/24/12

On slumbering monsters and introspective liberals



The rapacious monster that lurks beneath Indian towns and cities, its long-winding appendages that lie quiet and biding time beneath the villages, reared its head for a brief moment last week. Its pulse, so slow for the better part of the last decade, raced and its maw opened briefly. That hungry mouth, a passage to the heart of darkness this country knows so well, was denied its prey. It rolled a bit, within view, a Jaws monster torpedoing under the waves. And it sank, returning to the depths.

In living rooms and in teashops and outside newsagents, those who’d trembled at seeing it again - that unwelcome, unwanted shadow citizen of this country - whispered thankful prayers.
Walking in Bangalore on Monday evening, one could almost hear the relieved sigh. The monster’s shivery touch seemed banished, for the moment. Spines un-chilled. Flesh un-crept.

***

And then, on Thursday, I read this.

I read it again. What was I missing out? Why did this magazine publish it?

Kavita Buggana, the author of the piece, has a Muslim aunt who went to book readings and spoke Urdu well and married a Hindu man. And that aunt, when one reads the piece, had transmitted her perceptions and prejudices to her niece:


““You should have seen his father. He was so different; a scientist, an artist, well-travelled and well-read. My cousin was like that, too. Suddenly, 10-15 years ago,” she swept the air with her wrist, “poof — he got the beard, the cap.””


Buggana goes on to wonder about the man’s “overt declaration of religious identity” that “was a jarring rebuttal of a treasured family culture”. In Buggana’s mind, clearly the “Good” Muslims are people like her aunt who is part of a family where “Islam meant an ancient culture of poetry, fine art and subtly-flavored cuisine — a blend of the Hindu, European and Persian ethos”.

She then proceeds to ponder why the man made her uncomfortable. Only she doesn’t ponder long and she doesn’t follow through on this train of thought. She doesn’t attempt anything to overcome her prejudices. At least she doesn’t describe any such attempts in her piece, because the essay inevitably goes into 9/11 (because anything that is written about Muslims these days has to shove in a 9/11 angle) and the prejudice she, as a brown woman in the West, faced.

She then concludes how, once more, her view of Islam is tempered by her book reading attending, play watching aunt. For Buggana, all the weighty concerns she touched upon in this essay, melt away by eating a nice meal.

How good it would be, you think, if everything just melted away with the consumption of food. 

The breathtaking shallowness expressed in this essay leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Islam, for this woman, is epitomized by her aunt. An aunt who is the “liberated” Muslim woman, who is able to criticize the bearded cousin. The bearded cousin, harmless, just makes both women uncomfortable. What has he done to them? Nothing. They just think he doesn’t fit in their perceptions of what a Good Muslim is. And besides, the curry is too good and that’s what a whole religion is traduced to: tasty food. Food that the majority of Indian or any other Muslims might find alien to their own local cultures. 

The two women, then, retain their flawed assumptions of Islam and there’s no corrective, no dawning of realization at the end. There’s no breaching of their fossilized views of acceptable Islam and its good practitioners. Because, you see, the “Muslim” curry is too fragrant. 

Of course, it’s not just these two women who hold these views of what makes a Good Muslim. Plenty of the book reading attending, play watching crowd think like this. They will fight for the rights of the bearded and the hijab wearing, yes. But they would not want them in their social circle. They would prefer if they, with their visible expressions of religious devotion, were out of the way, on the fringes of the world in which they inhabit. Planets on different orbits.

The well-read, left leaning liberals who are that magazine’s readership can only permit certain kinds of Muslims into their world: part of or products of inter-community couplings, those who are cuddly Sufis, those who don’t recite the Qur’an unless to show they speak and understand Arabic and give erudite commentary on the Suras. Shias and Sunnis are acceptable so long as they don’t pray visibly, say inshallah in a non-religious manner and as an elegant ending to a wish, drink and have a sizeable library at home to show they are not uncivilized savages and totally fight for the right causes and not questionable ones. For these liberal, broadminded Indians, when it comes to Islam, syncretism is the preferred way to go.

So keep the burqas at home and mothball the hijabs. Shave off that beard. If you want to be accepted by liberal India, hew to what they think is the idea of a “Good” Muslim.

Oh, and don’t forget the curry. NEVER forget the curry.

6/11/12

The Leperous Cesspit that is ICICI Bank

Some fine day in December 2006, the stars were aligned wrong and chance made me an employee of a company that only did its banking business through the cesspit of financial shenanigans that is ICICI Bank.

For six years, I managed to keep my stuff out of trouble with ICICI bank - I took a risk averse approach. I didn't take any loans and used my debit card with care. I only used swipe style ATM machines, not the ones which swallow the card.

Then, last Wednesday, June 6, I made the mistake of using an ICICI ATM that swallowed the card. I did this because all the other machines only gave out Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes and I wanted notes of a smaller denomination.

I had started my descent through Dante's circles of hell.

First came the problem of communicating with the bank employees. For some reason, ICICI bank employees are happier communicating in Hindi than English. For me, it's the other way around. Those hurdles somewhat navigated, I managed to understand the details of the arduous process of getting back my card:

First, call customer care and block card.

Then, pray to all the saints that you will get the card back.

I let two days go by. On Saturday, I called up to ask where my card was. After all, for it to travel from Koramangala to MG Road in Bangalore, it would not take more than a day.

I was wrong. The cretin who answered the phone suggested that the card had been misplaced. That's right, folks. In taking out the card, taking it to the branch manager where the ATM was located and then going to MG Road, it would be better to ask:

How the fuck could it NOT be misplaced?

I grew hot and bothered and wrote an angry email.

I was then called up in the middle of the afternoon by a polite ICICIcretin who told me that actually, my card had already been dispatched.

Oh, I said. So why did SaturdaymorningICICIcretin say that it had been misplaced?

SaturdayafternoonICICIcretin suggested it was because SaturdaymorningICICIcretin didn't know his elbow from his arse.

And to prove it had been dispatched, SaturdayafternoonICICIcretin gave me details of courier.

Good, I thought. They might be using a Blue Dart or a DTDC or something along those lines.

Pah! Please. Blue Dart? DTDC? The Khayaal Aapka bank only uses the best of the best because its Privileged Banking customers such as myself should get the BESTEST service.

So what's the renowned courier company's name? Hand to Hand Couriers.

Come again?

Hand to Hand Couriers, located in only one place, namely, Lalbagh.

Getting such stunning reviews on the internet as the following:

Very BAD....my consignment has been returned by them. They didn`t called me ever. When I called him and requested again and again to send my consignment once again, asked to give the delivery person contact no. also to manage.. but all my request has been refused in ONE word."NOT POSSIBLE", no cooperation, nothing, very rude. Don`t know why ICICI bank has chosen such a bad courier service.
and:
Twice experienced the worst service and response to my consignment is that "Address not found" and courier returned to ICICI Bank.

Amazing that this courier couldn`t find my address whereas I have others mail received correctly. like Blazeflash, Dtdc, Bluedart etc
Oh and it's impossible to open this illustrious courier company's website to track your courier because it's been marked as "This site can be harmful to your computer" by Google. Classy, no?

So of course, with my confidence sky-high, I called up ICICI bank again because they were not responding to my emails.

The MondayafternoonICICIcretin first suggested that I wait, then suggested that I wait some more, then claimed he didn't have any information.

At which point I demanded to speak to his supervisor.

MondayafternoonICICIcretinsupervisor had the following to say - after making me wait 10 minutes on the phone:

The courier had not yet been dispatched. This, despite me having a mail from ICICI Bank with the dispatch date (June 8, 2012) and an airway bill number.

Now MondayafternoonICICIcretinsupervisor said that I might get it tomorrow. Or day after. Or when Octomom delivers another set of octuplets.

This is the bank that wins customer service surveys, people.

When this is what the great nation of India has to exhibit in the "Innovative Banking" category, you wonder how we can fail.

I am off to consult a horoscope chart to figure out if I ever will receive this damn card of mine.

And to curse the loins of ICICI Bank. May they be impotent forever.

5/18/12

Mango Season

I was slicing up the season's first mango a week ago and remembered I'd written this for a friend's blog years ago. It still holds true today:

Mango Season

When I was studying in Kollam, the Easter holidays were the ones we (who had no time to go home as the distances to be crossed were too much for the four days we got) would spend time under the mango trees. We would find stones, long sticks and bougainvillea stems long and strong enough to bring down even the most reluctant mango. It was an exercise in fun, an attempt to exorcise the loneliness each one of us felt.

The mango trees were so many on campus- there were three within our hostel periphery, a very benevolent one in the Chemical Engineering department's courtyard and of course, the parrot-nosed mangoes outside the Electrical Engineering department.

The latter was the most difficult to pluck from since the hawk nosed Head of the Electrical Engineering department used to regularly prowl around the tree and the corridor that ran next to it even on Easter Sunday.

The mangoes were raw and sour. They had to be. The ripe ones were inevitably infested with worms and pests. We couldn't possibly eat them, but Tashi, the enterprising Bhutanese would skin those too, chucking out the offending worm and sprinkling them with red chilli powder and salt before scarfing them down.

Simmy, a friend and room-mate would sigh and insist she wanted to be a worm in her next life so she could nestle in a mango. I am sure that if she does become a worm, she will be the worm with the widest smile.

We became sick after eating too many of the fruit. But the sickness would pass and we would be back under the trees, plucking the mangoes and storing them in plastic bags to ripen.

Now we have scattered into four corners of the country and abroad, it seems strange that this Easter, here in Powai Bangalore, there will be no  mango trees to stand under as Simmy the brave pulls down those mangoes and at the same time brushes off the red ants that have crawled up her legs.

I confess to never having loved that college much. Time and distance haven't made me more affectionate towards it, but there is a lot of love for the fruits that were eaten, the friends I made and the places I've walked with those friends.

4/26/12

Writing Room Bursary Win for In The Medinah

The extract from my novel-in-the-works, In The Medinah, did not make the wonderful people at The Writing Room barf into their oatmeal and they've awarded it their first bursary! You can head over to their lovely blog to read the extract.

4/18/12

What I Learned at IIT

Did I feel like a fish out of water at IIT Bombay?

I must admit that the first couple of weeks I was terrified. I’d heard so much about the institute as a child that certain ideas about the place were embedded in my mind. Everyone, I was convinced, would be a genius at their work. I’d be lost in a rarefied world. I wouldn’t understand them. I’d flunk out.

That was not what happened.

There were geniuses, yes. But there were also people like me, who could be termed competent.

I went to the design school, so we were not on the same plane as the rest of the campus. Booze and pot circulated at parties. Couples formed and split. A certain mattress on the terrace of the department became notorious for not just the filth on it, but also the convenience it offered for a quick lay during project all-nighters. Antonioni and Bergman were screened in the lecture hall rather than structural mechanics presentations.

There were inevitable complaints – students were not of as good a quality as previous batches. (How do they explain this and this, I wonder?)

These complaints (about my batch and the students after us) - stressing that we were more undisciplined and truant than those who’d gone before - are something every generation grumbles about.

So what, then, to make of these emails that have surfaced in The Hindu?

IIT Madras professors were venting the following in late March:

“Students' feedback at the forum seems to have bothered professors quite a bit, going by what one of the professors M.P. Maiya, chairman, council of wardens, suggests. “For the next open forum, if at all there is one, we must get the questions screened by responsible students first”, he says, in order to ensure no “insulting or embarrassing question” is raised. He says this, referring to ‘I am 21 and what is your (read Warden, CCW, DoS, Director) problem if I have sex with my girl friend or whoever it is in the hostel room?' and questions like that.”

“Shaligram Tiwari, another faculty member, goes further and brings parents into the picture. “I apologise in stating that parents do not have enough education to recognise moral values,” he says. He suggests “generating enough fear towards wrong-doing” among students and “handling them harshly”, clarifying that “Of course, the good and academic students will naturally remain unaffected.”” 

“…parents do not have enough education to recognize moral values.” 

That particular line reminded me of a conversation I had with a classmate during my third semester in Powai. He roomed in a hostel with a high number of undergrads and casually informed me that a girl in our class had gained the reputation of being a prostitute among these freshmen.

How could they say something like that, I asked. Why would they even think that?

They see her around Hiranandani in her shorts, so they just assume it, he replied.

These boys formed this opinion of women in shorts with the freedom to roam where they wanted not because their parents didn’t have enough education to recognize moral values. They formed this opinion because their parents sent them to places like Kota for two years where they are forced to cram for the IIT-JEE. Those two years, spent away from their parents and where they do nothing but solve calculus problems and mug up on thermodynamics, force them to grow in only one dimension. They do not develop critical thinking. They do not know how to interact with society. They do not learn how to interact with the opposite sex. They don’t understand that women should be treated as equals. They lack nuance and sensitivity. Their rigid moral code becomes even more ingrained.

After the fishbowl of places like Kota, they are herded off to cities like Delhi and Bombay – where women wear shorts, express opinions in class and smoke and drink. That this is a culture shock to these boys would be an understatement. The only place that they might have seen girls expressing themselves would be in Bollywood movies, where things like shorts and smoking and drinking are visual shorthand for vamps and prostitutes.

When small town, middle class India meets the big city for the first time, it is inevitable that there will be wide agape stares and rumour mongering. What doesn’t help these boys (and let’s face it, the overwhelming majority of the student body at any IIT is male) are the professors and deans and hostel wardens they meet on campus. Those in authority on campus are overwhelmingly male and middle class, most from orthodox families themselves. They, too, find female students who wear western attire and swim in the campus pool for pleasure and date and have pre-marital sex offensive and unnerving.

In 2005, during my last semester in Powai, a professor leaked a female student’s emails to his whole department. He insinuated that she’d managed to grab her seat at IIT through corrupt means – that she was give the answers to the JEE beforehand, cheated her way through semester exams once she got there and was therefore an unworthy candidate to get her BTech degree. That professor, too, like the students from IIT-JEE cram towns like Kota, couldn’t understand that Indian women are individuals with their own desires and minds. He couldn’t understand that this girl could exercise her free will in a democracy, that she could have sex with her boyfriend and go where she pleased. So he tried to make her an object of ridicule by leaking her private emails. He didn’t quite get the response he was hoping for – the backlash against him was loud and furious and the girl in question got her degree.

Kapil Sibal, Jairam Ramesh and Narayana Murthy can rant on about the quality of the students and the IIT-JEE coaching plague. But they won’t mention the other elephant in the room, the one that also contributes to “diluting” the “IIT brand” – the ossified faculty and administration. The faculty, which instead of encouraging new ideas, wants to stick to old ones. The faculty that would prefer to act as moral policemen when they should be progressive mentors.

I return to the question I posed at the beginning of this post:

Did I feel like a fish out of water at IIT Bombay?

And I have to answer: no. At least not until a fine Sunday morning in April 2004. I was going out of campus with my friend and we met a professor from our department at the main gate where men stood selling palm fruit. Since he was my friend’s professor, he talked to her for some time. Eventually, he turned his attention to me.

“I’ve seen you around the department,” he said. “What’s your name?”

“Saudha.”

“That’s an interesting name. Is that short for Saudamini?”

“No, it isn’t. It’s just Saudha.”

“So your parents didn’t want to name you Saudamini?”

“No, they didn’t.”

“It’s a strange name. What does it mean?”

“It means blackness in Arabic.”

“Oh.” There was a pause.

Then he asked, “But why did your parents…” he trailed off. “What’s your last name, then?”

“Kasim.” It struck him then. His wrinkled face crunched up and he blabbed: “Oh I have plenty of relatives in Pakistan.”

I think of the silence that ensued then as one of the worst moments in my life. That this IIT professor could only think of someone with an Indian Muslim heritage in context with Pakistan enraged me. There was that subtext in that defensive claim of his: I do not recognize you as Indian enough to be a compatriot of mine.

This, then, is what the IITs are and continue to be: a place where the faculty is stuck in a time warp into which they wish to draw a generation of students who cannot understand them, or their “traditions.”

2/8/12

On Scaring Trees to Give Fruit

Around six years ago, my parents and I stood in our garden, contemplating the jackfruit tree that had grown to around 20 feet in height but was not showing any sign of giving fruit.

My parents, especially my mother, were connoisseurs of jackfruit - like most Keralites they could taste the fruit and tell you what kind it was, which region it came from and give a potted history of the role it played in Kerala culture. Much like the French taste wine blind and give you ornate descriptions of taste, the Malayali will do the same with jackfruit and bananas. A couple of years ago, I attended a jackfruit festival at the Sahitya Akademi in Thrissur. It was, my father later remarked, a perfect summer afternoon - jackfruit of different varieties laid out to eat on long white tables, jackfruit payasam and halwa and mountains of chips ready to buy. There were saplings for sale (but of course) and a bookstall selling Chomsky, Guevera and Namboodripad. Over speakers mounted in the hall and outside, Communists recited poems about the land, the people, and of course, jackfruit. My mother was appreciative - there was nothing more suitable to listen to while eating jackfruit than a Communist who’d been lubricated by generous glasses of arrack.

But that day in the garden, my parents were expressing their intense disappointment about the tree.

“It’s a failure,” my father shook his head.

“It was planted with so much hope. I gave it so much love - and what does it do? Just climbs towards the moon and does not give us anything.” My mother was inconsolable.

Truth be told, if the tree did give fruit at its top, the only ones who’d get to eat it would be the birds and passengers of passing aircraft.

“We’ll have to scare it.” My father remarked.

“Yes.” My mother replied, still gazing up at the tree.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know, threaten it a bit. Call out to it that we’ll cut it down if it doesn’t give fruit. And then give it a little scratch with a knife to reinforce the threat.”

“That’s such nonsense.” I paused for a bit, “Does it work?”

“Of course it does.”

Some months later, my mother called me up and told me, with satisfaction, that yes, they’d threatened the tree. And, she swore in another call just a few weeks later, the tree was beginning to show signs of giving studded fruit. That summer, we feasted on a 15 kg jackfruit - it was cut up and sent to the neighbours and relatives. My mother made a pot of chakka varattiyathu, which we polished off within a day.

The scaring of the tree, though, turns out to not have been just a Kerala tradition. In his book on following Ibn Battuta’s footsteps, Travels with a Tangerine, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, found that al-Qazwini, the Persian physician, also gave it as a tip for persuading obstinate, non-fruit producing palm trees:

“I later came across the same tradition in al-Qazwini’s Wonders of Creation, together with the following useful tip:

If a palm fails to bear fruit, you should take an axe and approach it, saying aloud to another person, ‘I want to cut down this tree because it doesn’t bear fruit.’ Your companion should reply, ‘Don’t do that. It will bear fruit this year.’ Then you must say, ‘No it won’t, it’s good for nothing,’ and give it a couple of light blows with the axe. Your companion must then seize your hand and say, ‘Leave it alone. It’s a good tree. Give it one more chance. If it doesn’t bear fruit this year, then do what you like with it.’ If you follow this procedure, the palm will produce an excellent crop.

The technique, surely the ultimate in talking to plants, is said to work equally well with other fruit trees.”

1/5/12

The Spit Artists of Bangalore

He takes a long deep breath, hocks back the phlegm with truly earth shattering sound effects and then, head turning ever so slightly to the left, puckers his mouth and lets go, in a neat, smooth arc, a projectile missile of saliva.

He does this every ten minutes during the six kilometer drive.

How it doesn’t land on me seated behind him or the person nervously riding pillion on a rickety scooter that sputters past us or the side of a BMTC bus trundling beside us on the Inner Ring Road is a mystery.

This autorickshaw driver is, of course, the supreme practitioner of the art of spitting. His prowess at it, the parabola of the saliva missile, the ability to ensure his spittle does not harm passersby makes him the Nadia Comaneci of spit artists in Bangalore. A perfect 10 in every respect.

Others don’t fare so well. For the sake of ease, I’ve classified them below, providing grades for each (0 being the lowest, 10 being the highest for each parameter):

The Morningstar

He is a slave to tobacco in all its forms. His five pack a day habit and gutka addiction shows up each morning. He’s not necessarily stationery. He’ll be riding in his car, on his bike or just standing outside his house, vigorously scratching his crotch.

Those of us unlucky enough to deal with The Morningstar as we run to catch the morning buses or company conveyance have to execute Rudolph Nureyev-style leaps to avoid the generous saliva bombs emitted by this early morning fixture on the city roads and residential neighborhoods.

There’s a Morningstar in every neighborhood in Bangalore. If, like me, you’re unlucky enough to live in a place with more than one, the constant need to keep a firm lookout for the Morningstars ensures that your body gets a thorough workout. In executing maneuvers to avoid the spittle, you do several trunk twists, windmill your arms to ensure your bag is saved and of course, leap high in the air, exercising the calf, quads and hamstrings in the process. The leap, performed several times, ensures your own respiratory health and lessening the possibility of you becoming a Morningstar yourself.

Below are The Morningstar’s grades:

Technique: A not-bad 8
Volume: Pretty average 5
Consideration for Passersby: An intolerable 0
Overall grade: 4.3

The Loafer

Unlike The Morningstar The Loafer doesn’t have a fixed time in which he pursues his passion for spitting. He’s also a lech par excellence, so usually can be found loafing on pavements (or the ruins of these as is common in this city) when housewives do the mid-morning market run, schools close for the day in the afternoon and when the tired and harried workers of the world return home in the evenings.

The Loafer can again be subdivided into two kinds – the aforementioned lech who gazes and lusts after comely specimens of humanity and the gossip, constantly chattering with anyone who will give him the time of day.

While the lech is considerate in his spitting (after all, he doesn’t want to rain on the parade of beauties passing him by), the same cannot be said about the gossip. Any juicy bit of gossip has to be punctuated by regular spitting, done without consideration for others or where he stands.

I’ve seen the Gossiping Loafer spit, in the height of rumor-mongering excitement, on passing children, dogs, cows, unlucky bike riders and legs of passersby. Said passersby don’t usually realize they’ve been spat upon until they reach home to find something sticky on their pant-leg or salwar-cuff. Or in the case of the truly wretched of God’s creatures, on the ends of expensive silk saris.

Grading The Loafer as a monolith is, therefore, difficult. I’ve split it into two and averaged out the results to arrive at an overall grade:

The Lecherous Loafer
Technique: A laconic 5
Volume: A moderate 5, sometimes increasing with lecherous excitement to 7
Consideration for Passersby: 8
Average: 6.3

The Gossiping Loafer:
Technique: A shambolic 1
Volume: Constant gossiping leading to an 8
Consideration for Passersby: 0
Average: 3

Grading for The Loafer as a whole: 4.65

The Bus Rider

A confession: I was once, on a long-ago bus ride through Idduki, The Bus Rider for a grand total of one minute. Admittedly, I was only three years old and just discovering the joys of spit-bubbles, but even to this day the episode fills me with shame. Being a novice Bus Rider, I attempted to spit through the bars of the KSRTC bus in which I was sitting. The globule of spit was no arrow or dew that flew suicidal into the red-eye cauldron of morning. Rather, it dripped pathetically on the bars of the window. Since my mother didn’t have her eagle eye on me at the time, I attempted to spit again. This time, it flew out of the bars and onto the lush bunch of bananas on a cart. Terrified that the woman selling the fruit would have seen it, I shrank back and sat in my seat, cured forever of my desire to be The Bus Rider spit artist.

Obviously the Bus Rider spit artists seen (usually in the back seats) in the BMTC buses plying through this fine city are not the cowards that I am. They are fine craftsmen, taking time to form their spittle and usually letting go of it during blocks at traffic signals. This ensures that their spittle usually lands on the top of vehicles of stumpier stature. There are inconsiderate Bus Riders as well, ones who spit while the vehicle is on the move. These are the uncivilized variety, whose ejaculates land on windscreens, heads and helmet visors of passersby. They obviously get a big, fat 0 as a grade.

For the civilized Bus Rider, I’ve arrived at the following grade:

Technique: A masterly 9
Volume: An average 5 on mild days, an inspiring 7 on hot ones
Consideration for Passersby: A public-spirited 10
Average grade: 8.3

The Red Baron

When I first visited Bangalore as a whelp, it was to attend the Karnataka Entrance Exam counseling session. On the day we arrived, the city was mostly deserted. And pristine. On the second day, however, day of the counseling session proper, we found that hoards of enthusiastic paan chewers had descended on the streets of the city. Monuments that were previously virginal white (or as white as an object can be in such a place) were rendered an eyesore-ish orange.

The Red Baron chews paan through every waking hour. Some, I’ve heard, even masticate during their sleep, dribbling red streams onto their bed linen. The Red Baron is also canine-like in nature. While the other Spit Artists don’t leave much of a trace once the evaporation process has taken place (yes, that rain that fell on your head yesterday was once a Spit Artist’s saliva), The Red Baron likes to mark his territory. Usually on territory that’s already been claimed by hundreds and thousands of Red Barons before him. The Red Baron usually likes nooks and crannies to spit on – witness the red bases of pillars in railway stations for evidence. He’s also partial to decorating monuments protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The ASI, I suspect, do have a special Anti-Red Baron squad, armed with bottles of Clorox and scrubbers.

The Red Baron is also the most temperamental among the Spit Artists of Bangalore. To argue with The Red Baron is to risk the cleanliness of one’s body and clothes. As my dry-cleaning bill often proves.

So here’s my grade for The Red Baron

Technique: A just-above-average 6
Volume: A ponderous 10
Consideration for Passersby: A not-at-all civic minded 2
Average grade: 6

The Born Again Yogi

The Born Again Yogi led a dissipated life involving endless packets of beedis, cigarettes, gutka and paan before experiencing an epiphany following the diagnosis of emphysema in his 40th year. Since then, he has a better relationship with his Neti Pot than leaf tobacco.

And like most Born Again specimens of any persuasion, he’s an insufferable bore. He considers his spittle to be above the rest of humanity’s. It is virtuous and blessed. His attitude towards those demanding he stop his loud hocking is to give a supercilious stare and continue with his morning rituals of bringing up generous volumes of phlegm.

The Born Again Yogi spit artist usually populates the parks in the mornings where he piously does the rounds and spits at every turn.

Technique: A laughable 2
Volume: A shocking 8
Consideration for Passersby: A grudging 7
Average grade: 5.6

The Constant Hocker

The Constant Hocker has watched that scene from Titanic one too many times. Until Leo taught Kate the joys of hocking back noisily before letting rip, the Constant Hocker was a shy practitioner of the art. He did it surreptitiously, out of sight of adults and shyly thooing into grass verges and gutters on the side of roads.

Leo’s ability to hock back and let his spittle become the salivatory equivalent of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County proved to be the same inspiration to The Constant Hocker that Marie-Therese Walter became to Picasso. It took The Constant Hocker to hitherto unmatched levels of artistry, heights and parabolic range.

The Constant Hocker on my street takes up his position for around half an hour each day outside the broiler chicken shop. There, he practices his art every five minutes. First there’s that huge throat clearing, then the loud gurgle and rasp, the bubbling sound of collecting enough phlegm from the nasal passages to mingle with the saliva, a final rush around the mouth and then, a carefully considered emitting of this huge glob of spittle. When it usually lands next to a cowpat, it’s hard not to wonder at the sheer dimensions of it. That one human can do such a thing leaves one in awe at the power of nature and the creative ability of providence.

Grading for The Constant Hocker:

Technique: A jaw-dropping, reciprocal spit inspiring 10
Volume: Eye-watering 10
Consideration for Passersby: An average 5
Average Grade: 8.3