Saturday, December 30, 2006

FAQ: What do I do the whole day?

I remember an envious colleague telling me on the day I retired, "I wish I too could say, a Monday is just another day."

Ogden Nash articulated the thought in a verse:
Monday is the day that everything starts all over again;
It's the day when life becomes grotesque again,
Because it is the day when you have to face your desk again;

The bliss of retirement, of not having to go to work, is short-lived. Before long you discover there is another side to a life free from Monday-morning work hassle. Now I have people asking how I manage to spend time in retirement. I tell them about my collection of unread books, the TV remote, that handy device for channel-surfing. I tell them about my blog. They nod agreeably. And just about when I feel that the issue has been settled, they pop the question: "Yes, but what is it that you do the entire day?"

Even while in service, friends and relatives, whose perception of a journalist is based on what they see in movies, had difficulty believing that I was capable of an honest day's work. A journalist is seen generally fooling around in coffeehouses or the press club much of the day, dropping in at the office for a while to work the phone and tap a few hundred words on his PC before rushing out for cocktails in the evening. If this is called work, they wonder what idling would be all about.

I mean, they can clearly see the slogging involved in the job done by a ledger-pushing bank clerk or a bricklayer. Even some government babus manage to look busy and purposeful. But when it comes to the media, people are a bit dense on what, precisely, a newspaper correspondent does. I suppose one could raise the same question about the Pope or the President of India.

Our TV and print media photos usually show the President taking a leisurely ride on the horse-drawn Victoria down Rajpath on R Day, hosting lavish parties for visiting dignitaries or pinning medals on people. My boss at the Times of India News Service desk was seen doing not much other than signing sub-editors’ duty charts, leave-sanction forms and lighting up his Guntur cheroot that got put out every now and then. He made seem time-consuming. The boss always managed to look important, purposeful, and in his loosened up tie and rolled up sleeves, fully occupied.

As I said, since retirement the most persistent FAQ I have had, even from well-meaning folk: What do I do the whole day? Spending time on the Net, or with a book, isn’t seen as ‘activity’. I don’t go to the bank or post-office; or stir out my house to pay the phone or power bill. I had a neighbour in Coonoor who had a flair for fixing things - electric iron boxes, mixie, torches, vintage HMV sets that play gramophone records and virtually any other thing that would otherwise have been consigned to the kabariwalah.

Watches and wall clocks that don't run fascinated my busybody neighbour . Occasionally, when he found himself on loose ends, he checked out his neighbours, asking if they needed anything he could fetch from the market or if they had a dripping tap that needed a fresh washer. In contrast, there I was, doing none of this. Must confess I haven’t even mastered the art of wiring a blown fuse. What’s worse, I often get caught ‘book-handed’.

If there is anything a wife usually gets bugged about in a man milling around the house 24x7, it is his obsession with books. Her refrain, ‘don't sit there hiding your face behind a book, do something.’ In retirement, count yourself lucky if you get to read a book, without being interrupted, by having to answer phone calls that are usually for others in the house; distracted by someone ringing the door bell – dobhi or subzi-lady. This is when you miss the office. I used to take a book to work; averaged two titles a week.

Retirement is not all about a running argument with your wife. It makes you more reflective; ponder philosophical questions such as, "How did I age so quickly?" It seemed not so long ago, when I was a care-free bachelor, then, a not-so-caring husband in newspaper, and job-driven absentee father for my son; and now, a grandpa. After retirement, notably, after a grandson happens, you find more relevance to life. Snag is you realize that there isn't much life ahead for you to benefit from the enlightment.

And then the changed lifestyle leaves you with time to think, particularly during those insomnic spells. Few people really do think, although most believe they do. Thinking is demanding and tiring. It is an exercise for the mind. Thinking is hard work. Need I say anything else about how I spend most of my day?

(See earlier version of this piece in

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Of Punch & Shadow, and a street dog named Brownie

When our Bitsy died my wife and I resolved never to keep a dog ever again. Bitsy was irreplaceable. But my wife's madness for dogs hasn't gone away, even decades after Bitsy's death. It is in her DNA. Whenever she phones any of her many sisters the conversation eventually turns to dogs. She talks about Prince with Gowri in Mysore; about Joey, with Chitra, the dead old Tuffy, with Rajesh (both in Chennai). At a recent family get-together in Bangalore, hosted by Gita, the bunch of sisters ran a seminar on dogs. Besides their own Punch and Shadow Gita's daughter, Bubly, is friends with Rocky, Tommy, Blackie and a couple of other street dogs of Kammanhalli, Bangalore.

Speaking of street dogs we had one at Coonoor that fed on leftovers offered by neighbourhood residents. Piloo Nazir, who isn't a rice eater, bought rice from the fair-price shop, only to feed our friendly neighbourhood dog. She boiled leafy vegetable with a fistful of rice, and served it without salt or sugar,but with spoonsful of sympathy. The dog had it all without complaining.

But then he was not finicky, like Prince in Mysore, who would wait till late in the evening, on an empty stomach, for his master Raghottam to come home from the club with the customary packet of chicken bones. Our neighbourhood dog was not as fussy as Shadow in Bangalore who would want his fresh milk and rice served in stainless steel bowl, preferably hand-fed by my niece Bubly. Our dog was not as pampered as Tuffy or sheltered in a Velacherry delux apartment as Joey.

When my nephew Kartik had to leave Joey in the care of the SPCA at Vepery, Chennai, for a few days, the handler was instructed to serve him curd and rice, which wasn't on the kennel menu. The dog handler told him that he would have to order it from a nearby restaurant. Kartik left with him a hefty advance to cover the food plus a little something for the curd-and-rice care.

Yes, we are a dog-mad clan. I must say I married into one. Before our wedding, my wife had a dog named Bhutto. Whether or not Bhutto is remembered in Pakistan, the name is part of our family folklore. I am not sure what prompted my wife's family to name their dog after a signatory to the Simla Agreement. But then there need not always be a reason for in one's doings.

Unlike pet dogs that are taken out for daily walk by pet owners, our dog in Coonoor used to walk people in the neighbourhood. He escorted school kids to the bus stand. He took our neighbours, the Ramans, to the temple, and escorted my wife and me on our morning walks. Which was why we named him Walker - Brownie V Walker, to call him by his full name. That 'V' in the middle sorted him out from other Brownies in town. One should not confuse our dog with Brownie A Walker ( of Aruvankadu) or 'B' (for Bedford) Walker. I don't know why, but most street dogs we found in Coonoor were brown.

Walker had many friends, who joined him on our walks. And before we made it to the St.Anthony School kerb, we had a gang of brownies, all friends of Walker, walking us along. At times Walker followed a jogger for a few yards to sniff him out. A few of the morning walkers he didn't particularly fancy. There is this lady with a boy's hairdo. Whenever she happened to overtake us on the street, Walker barked. She was not amused; we looked elsewhere in embarrassment. The lady once shouted out across the street, asking us why we didn't have him on a leash. She, probably, didn't see Walker was a street dog who happened to walk along with us.

We could not get rid of him, even if we wanted to. There is no way Walker would disown us. He has no ego. Shoo him away and he would be back, wagging his tail with added vigour before you could say Brownie Vannarpet Walker. At times I got put off by his prancing, pouncing and licking at my forearm as soon as I step out of the house in the morning. Walker, who spent the night out in the cold, was always at our door-step in the morning. We humans we are so full of ourselves that we fail to to appreciate Walker's selfless cheerfulness after a night out in the cold and the exuberance with which he greeted us in the morning.

But then I couldn't bring myself to admit Walker into the family fold. You see, we once had a dog, Bitsy, who was picked up from the streets in Bhopal. We took Bitsy along when I was transferred to Chandigarh and then on to Chennai. He died at the age of 13, of kidney failure. Bitsy was an adorable rogue and undisciplined to the core. The only person he ever listened to was Dinkar, our office assistant. But then Dinkar could not come with us to Chennai. Fortunately, we had a spare bedroom in our Pantheon Road residence and we locked Bitsy in there whenever we had visitors.

Those who know dogs know that most of them are allergic to khaki. Walker didn't fancy our postman. We could have asked him not to wear khaki, if only to appease Walker. But that would have been against regulations. But then Walker was freaky. He didn't like my newspaper delivery boy either. And he didn't wear khaki.

We really don't understand dogs, do we? My junk mail the other day had this to say about dogs:
They follow you around with their tongues out; only respond to simple commands; their needs are basic and predictable; they whine when such needs are not met; they scratch a lot, and sometimes drool; make loud noises and sometimes smell bad; they are rude and rowdy, especially when they are with others like them.

What does it all add up to? Dogs are men that wag their tails. In some respects, they are more sensible than humans. I have not seen a dog throwing stones at stray men. Have you ?