Monday, January 30, 2012

North East Chronicles 3: Lakwa - the struggle of a small town...

( After couple of narratives around the journey's from mid-Assam to Guwahati, the North-East Chronicles travels to Lakwa, Sibsagar, Assam - the land of the Ahom Empire and birthplace of the Assam insurgency. )

It must be early 1999.   That year, I frequented this oil block for Gas Authority in Lakwa for some IT work.   Our next 3-4 episodes would be around this small, sleepy town.   A place which has been etched in my memory forever.

Lakwa is a small, quiet town in Sibsagar district, Assam, North East India.  It has a small railway station.  It plays host to an ONGC oil block and a gas block from Gas Authority of India.   It is a town created by the oil and gas industry. 
One of the few palaces built by the
Ahoms in Sibsagar, near Lakwa

The majority of the people in Lakwa and in Sibsagar are Ahoms.  Ahom dynasty ruled this region for more than 600 years.   Lot of brick palaces were constructed.   The Ahoms adapted Hinduism around 1700's and moved from their customs of burying their dead to cremation.  

Post the fall of the Ahom empire, the region was under the Burmese rule for a brief period and then it become a permanent annex of the British-Indian Empire.

Post Independence, Assam largely served as a territory to be grudgling defended, an impoverished outpost.   The lure of the Assam tea and the discovery of oil changed from the far-fetched rag-tag state to a lady of the riches.   Slowly the oil companies moved in. 
The mainland people had come in the garb of nationalized oil companies.  They dug the earth and found the riches - large swathes of crude oil and natural gas.  These riches were exported out of the locals' reach.   Further, the promised employment never came.   It was more outlanders who got the better and top jobs.  

The locals had to cope with the situation.  They used to get the low-end jobs, often menial.   The resentment built up to a strong undercurrent.   The broad feeling, which I could infer from my small talk with the local, was around how fate had deceived them, again and again.  

New colonies of the oil-masters came up destroying Mother Nature further.  Huge walls sprung up.   The town settlement of the natives dwindled.   With such a restrictive law, the people had to rely on the oil companies for curfew.  

An effluent disposal site, Lakwa
And then, pollution.  Effluents from the refinery and other human faeces destroyed the beauty of Mother Nature.  It was only getting worse since 1950's.

In the 90's, AFSPA ( Armed Forces Special Powers Act) was in place. Large gatherings, greater than 5 people were not allowed.  Every nook and corner had a gun totting policeman or a soldier.
Any event in this place would be a storm in a tea-cup, for the oil company's head quarters and the Delhi satraps.   Any visit from a Delhi-wala would be to inaugurate some facility in the colony.   The small town would become a fortress a week before the impending arrival.   We used to stay inside the Brahmaputra hotel.

In 1999,  pillion riding was banned in Sibsagar district.   Maruti Gypsy's were the preserve of the Army.  The commute was typically by walk or cycle.   Longer distances were covered through the IOC , ONGC and GAIL buses - which doubled as pick-and-drops for the employees as well. 

Our workstyle used to be somewhat like this.  We used to start early at 6 am, as soon as the sun rose.  After work, we returned around 4 pm.   Nobody wanted to miss the 4 pm bus.  The next and final bus was at 730 pm, but it was too dark and dangerous.  

Aurobindo Rajkhowa, from this
small town led a two decade insurgency
The small town shut shop at the earliest.   The natives kept to themselves.  Largely peaceful in nature - atleast that is what I could see in my six months of stay there.  But everybody was a suspect - under the watchful eyes of the gun-totters at the end of each street. 

The struggle of this small town and its neighbourhood was like a pressure cooker with no contents, but heated by a full flame gas stove.  The pressure valve burst elsewhere.  The governments of the Guwahati and New Delhi have paid only lip service.

No wonder, this very town was the place of birth of insurgency. What outsiders would see as the mindless and illogical path for rights, would be seen as the only way of struggle by the locals.    One of the inhabitants of this land, led an insurgency against the powers-that-be, which is still on.   This is the land of Arabindo Rajkhowa.  His house itself is a thatched and brick settlement, as understated as can be.  

The interdependence of needy natives and the bounty hunters needs to be clearly integrated.   The out of sight, out of mind culture of the world's largest democracy has to vanish.   Else, the very concept of federalism would be challenged.   Like elsewhere, till then, the struggles like the one in this small town will continue...

-The One

( Courtesy pic the Internet)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Storm and the Calm: Cacophony of the cactus and the balance of the Buddha

The nightmare continues.  I try to be as sane as possible.   Like in the movie Inception, the walls are slowly and surely closing in.   The vents dont pump in air.   The head is heavy.  The lungs feel tight and knotty.   The throat goes dry.   I gasp for breath.   Some choke-hold this.

Like a cactus in a desert I lose
 I wake up panting and gasping for breath. Many dreams- but the same ending. The agony transcends beyond the boundary between the world of sleep and awakening.   I lose balance and the sense of time and space.  Every second is agony.

It is like drowning in water, forever.  Beneath the water, I gasp for oxygen.  I want to go up.  I go up, but come down into the water again.  Pulled into the vortex.   I scream for help.   I try to grasp something solid.   Something that will give some orientation and sense.  

But there is nothing.   The vortex sucks me in.  The inevitable black hole awaits - like the spider waiting for its prey.  I panic.  All this within me.  Outside, I smile with emptiness.

The Bust of Buddha -
a sense of calm and
I wander around the malls - killing time. I visit this shop.  To kill time.  I know that time is the vortex.   The inevitability is obvious. 

Like the cactus in a desert.  No help beyond the horizon.  Everywhere it is a sea of sand.  White and shining.  Endless.  Which way to go?  Senseless.  No direction, no bearings. 

And I see the smiling face.   A slight smile.  Curled, plainted, knotted hair.  Long ears.  Broad forehead.  Closed eyes.  The calmness and assurance.  With the comfort of the smile.  It is like a still ocean.   Deep and silent.   The permanence of it.   And the balance.   The BUDDHA.

Closed eyes.   Calm?  No Vortex?
 The cactus and the Buddha find their way to my hall.  The cactus blends in the background - the inevitable vortex of material, cacaphonic life.   The Buddha - reflecting the calm and the balance, but prominent.

In reflection, subconsciously, I comb my short hair with my palm.  They remind of the fallibility and mortality of the homo-sapien.  My resolution #1.

I look at the Buddha and close my eyes.   No vortex.  No desert.   Only calm and balance.

-The One

( Pics courtesy The One)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Mumbai Mumbles - da marriage - distant joy!

The sparkingly lights reflects
 everybody's delight
In life, simple events turn into unique experiences.  If only everybody could talk about it!   One such recent event turned into a unique experience.

It is a long time since I attended a marriage function.  Almost 4-5 years?  I had to attend this function of a colleague.  I went dressed in a Kurta and jeans.  

New to Mumbai, I took another colleague to get me there fast.   After a small tea break like how we do for long drives (well,  it was a 90 minute drive on a Saturday night, and I was in no mood, but still had to, you get the point :)  ) and then finally reached the destination.

The marriage was a Marathi marriage.   My first visuals of this kind.  So I could typify the event, but  let it be for some other day. We had to wait in a long queue.  The groom was dressed in a navy blue tuxedo and the girl was dressed in a nice flowing embroidered gown. Damsels dressed like angels,  Gentlemen looking their best and kids dressed in all colors. Everybody was happy and smiling. 
Car that would drive
the couple into dreamland
Couple of girls would laugh loudly at every joke a guy threw and few aunties flaunting their thick necks loaded with jewellery.   The hosts will all polite smiles were welcoming each invitee, posing for pics and ushering them to the dinner spot.

We wound out way up through the serpentine queue to reach the dias.  We gave our gifts, exchanged pleasantries and posed for a pic.   In this entire half an hour episode, never was life boring.   It was pomp, splendor and joy.  Everybody in the hall was sharing the joy and dreams of the married couple.   The air smelt of roses.  

Reluctantly, we made our way to dinner.   We had planned to skip.  Then we decided we will peep in.   A splendid display of North Indian and Marathi cuisine.  We enjoyed our pick and then the deserts.  Everybody left with lot of happiness and content.   Two lives were uniting, and their universe blessing them for a better future.

We stepped out to collect our car from the valet.   Outside,the cold air washed past our faces. At the entrance, the decor and the sparkling serial lights lit the trees, and magnified the opulence and splendor of the event inside.  Two cars decorated with flowers and ribbons, waited to take the couple into the dreams of married life.
The distant joy!  The entrance of the
marriage hall

Just near the entrance, two young girls were clapping their hands, and jumping in joy.   Their eyes sparkled with happiness, reflecting the color lights decorating the entrance.

Their dresses were torn,  hairs dishavelled, and little, bare feet covered with dust.   Nothing mattered.   They too were sharing the joy of the events happening outside.   They cared two-hoots about their looks and the fact that they had to beg and some good samaritan had to pay for their next meal.   It was just pure joy - even though, it might be their dream

The joy of these souls would never be visible to the bride and the groom.

It was a pure moment,  two pure souls enjoying what might never be theirs. The image stayed in my eyes for a long time, as I drove my Etios back home.

-The One

( Courtesy the One )

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

North East Chronicles -2 : The Barrel Bravado

( Continued from NE Chronicles 1... )

36 seater Volvo - a white knife
cutting through the darkness
This time, I could catch the regular AC bus from Numaligarh to Guwahati.  The bus was awesome.  A 36 seater, on high pedestal;   power steering,  hydraulic brakes, white mammoth - which could negotiate the surprisingly smooth curves of the NH36 highway.   How would one miss this white fairy?   Smooth ride till the city - like a white knife cutting through darkness.  And for me, away from the dusty, bustling streets of Kolkata, it was the ultimate chariot of peace.

Surojit- a reluntant Bengali from Kolkata, who was travelling on our behest, was responsible for the testing activity.   Utpal - a non-chalant individual who also carried an air of authority, and I were the other protagonists of this interesting episode.

We had to return to Guwahati after having a tough day with an unusually testy client.   We had to go through a series of gate pass clearances as we were bringing a fiber optic kit  ( FOK) to our office in Guwahati. 

A fiber optic kit ( FOK)- some nervy
moments with it
This FOK is used to test continuity in fiber optic cables and also measure cable lengths. It looks like a heavy suit-case.  For the layman, it looks like a garage on the move.

We somehow got rid of the pesky staff and security to reach the 'mod' (junction) on time.  The tired-three let out a collective sigh of relief when we saw the bus arrive.  About 5 people, including us got in.  We put our bags inside the underbelly of the bus and shoved the FOK into the luggage compartment above our heads.

The next three hours were uneventful.  We slept like logs.  I could remember only darkness and chill.  After sometime, I could hear the thud of the rain drops hitting the bus' steel body.   The frontscreen wiper was working overtime to keep the sheets of rain away. 

Silence, otherwise. Mosquitoes.  Occasional snore, mumble, slap for the mosquit.

We all woke up to a sudden commotion.  The bus came to a grinding halt.   A flurry of activity started in the front.   Sleepy eyed, we yawned and cursed the crew of the bus being so noisy.  

The lights went on suddenly.   Three olive-green clad men got into the bus.   Covered head to toe in army shades, dripping water.  Two of them were carrying LMG's, and one had a flash torch with a long handle.   One guy covered the right side passengers and another the ones on the left side.   The third one, with the flash torch stood at the entrance.

They would ask each guy ' thera naam kya hai?'( 'what is your name?'), 'kidhar jaa rahaa hai?', ('where are you going?').  They were rude and uncouth.  Threatening sometimes.   Both were clearly nervous and shuffling the coat-flaps.  Very often they would also sling and unsling the LMG from one shoulder to another.

They asked couple of them - natives to get down to open their travel bags and suit cases.  We suddenly were uncomfortable.  Rudely pulled out of our cozy naps, in the chill wet weather, we were worried about the FOK.   The FOK was actually a suit case with thick plastic cover, that too yellow in color.  It should attract unwarranted attention! 

Army check:   Barrel Bravado
 We nervously glanced at each other, but pretended to be calm.   Curiously the soldier by-passed Surojit.  He was a puny guy - about 5 feet tall and looked pathetic.   Somehow, when he blootered out his name like a drunk -  'Surojit Roy' with a strong Bong accent and evaded interest.

My turn came.  Same questions. 

Soldier: 'Kya naam hai?' ( what's the name).  
I: 'Ashok'.
Soldier:  'Poora naam bhathaa?  Bhol!' 'Tell your full name, tell!'
I: Ashok Subramanian

He turned his back on me, and said 'saala madrasi hai' ( 'he is a Madras guy').  A chill crept into my spine, as the metal tip of the barrel touched my skin.   For me, this was a first time- I mean, touching a gun.

The soldier moved towards Utpal - Utpal was seated behind me.  

Same questions.   First name, second name.   Utpal answered 'Hazarika'.  Then the FOK caught his eye.   Our heart sank and pulse raced - faster than light could travel.  

Banging the lid of the FOK with his right, wet palm he popped questions which seem to come in fits and starts -  ' yeh kya cheez hai?'   'kya maal hai'? ('what is the thing? the thing?') The guy was becoming increasingly nervous.  

Utpal replied with a slight smile - 'apna ganji jangiya hai, sir'. ( My inner garments, sir)  The soldier took his right palm from the FOK and slapped Utpal on his face.  Utpal was rattled, and was bleeding from a cut lip.  

Suddenly, the soldier with the flash torch, guarding the entrance got off and asked these two soldiers to get off - 'yoh, chal, all clear hai' ( Guys, let's move, everything is clear).  

The gypsy carrying them disappeared in the dark.   Utpal got his face cleaned with some water.   All of us, were s#!t scared.   Nobody spoke.  The bus tentatively moved towards Jagi Road.

Next day morning, we got news that there was a shoot-out between the separatists and the Army in the nearby forests and the soldiers were checking passenger vehicles to trap possible fugitives.  

At our office, the FOK lay peacefully, unaware of the nervous moments its carriers had to go through.  Utpal took the day off.  Surojit slept through the day and I was busy meeting few of my friends.

That evening, as I was travelling towards the Guwahati Airport along with Surojit,  a sudden sense of reality dawned.  

In a group, with a gun in hand, the typical soldier feels safe.  The fear of the unknown, and the unexpected in a distant land, albeit being the same country, overwhelms the soldier every minute of the day.   When alone, and out of the camp, the soldier is literally a tramp.  

The myth about fighting for the country, patriotism et al are sold to the typical citizen who watches these soldiers in TV programmes from the distance and safety of his/her drawing room.  In reality, it is the primal need that is at work.  

All the bravado we see is because the barrel is on your side.  Fear, hunger, sleep, shelter and safety.  That is what you fight for or against.  Nobody knows it better than the soldier in the front.  

-The One

( Pics Courtesy the Internet)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Welcome Kit !

The car does matter.  But the car dealer does more.

What a difference it makes, when you love your car.   Every time, the customer experience offered by the people who face the customer is important for somebody sticking with a particular brand.  With so many choices available, it is important that the individual customer is taken care of.

My recent experiences in purchasing a new car throw simple but powerful lessons.  Read on...


Around mid-October, I had booked my car.   Lot of wrangling between a sedan and premium hatchback,  petrol vs diesel.   For whatever it is worth, decision was made in favour of a entry-sedan and petrol ( low daily mileage, hence?!).   Some love for the Toyota brand, I ended up buying the Toyota Etios.

I went to look at the car initially for a test drive to the Lakozy Toyota showroom in Malad.  I was seated in a comfortable chair, and was served with water and coffee.  This was repeated during my next three visits to the showroom.  Meticulously followed.

Professional customer attention was
a key factor in me becoming
a Toyota customer
They always came with the estimated time of wait (ETW) very clearly.   And if it was extended, would inform about it with the due apologies.   Very impressive, it was.

When I took the car for test drive, the sales advisor would patiently explain the key features especially when driving around.   They sold the car to my heart and relating to my driving style.

Contrast this with an across-the-road Ford dealer in Malad.   I was handled by at least 3 salespeople, with no ETW.  The wait was endless and I was passed around. 

Finally, one senior guy walked in to explain about the Ford Classic being out for a corporate event, and was so was not available for the test drive.  He shared his card and never got called me back, as he never bothered to take my number, obviously.  I left fuming and Ford lost a customer.  

Ford Classic is a great car, but when it came to the decision point, at the ground level, the dealer behaviour made the difference.  Toyota earned a customer then.


The second major experience on Toyota's customer-care was during the handover.   They telephoned me to schedule the visit 3 days before the actual day.   They asked me bring in the necessary documents.  The morning on the actual day, they called to make sure that I would come and I had the documents. 

A 30 minute click-laminate-frame routine
for the new car handover ceremony
When I went that evening, I was heralded into the visitor's bay with the same meticulousness and attention, served with tea and water with a smile.   The person-in-charge said that the car would be ready in 10 minutes, plus 30 minutes of handover ceremony and 30 minutes for documentation.   They enquired if that would be fine.  I nodded.   They proceeded to get this done in precision.  

They handed over a Ganesha idol and asked me place it in the front bonnet.  They did the Pooja and handover the keys.  They took a picture and within 30 minutes, a nice pic of me receiving the car keys from the executive was laminated and frame.  How sweet!

Next, the briefing.   It was exhaustive.  Every important thing was told.   Every detail covered.  They introduced me to a personal service advisor at the end.   And they asked me if I would need assistance till home.  While I declined the offer, I was very impressed. 

Again, contrast this with a recent experience of my friend with his Tata Nano.  This was a dealer in Andheri East.   I went along with him, just for the experience.

Firstly, the time of delivery was not confirmed.   When we went to the car delivery point, there was no personal attendance.  My friend seemed to know the folks by virtue of his trips to evaluate and book the car.  In spite of that, and while there were lot of idle sales people hanging around in the reception, none cared to address us.

We went, saw and returned - the Nano
was not ready - a tough customer
experience for my friend

After three follow-ups and angry posturing,  the sales person came out and said that the car is indeed there.  But the registration was not completed.   The insurance details were not complete from our side, and what they had was a transit insurance.   Hence they advised that it was not safe to take the car out. Then why were we first told that the car was ready?!

Also some accessories like the side rails were not available in stock, they said.  They could fix the registration and the accessories part in three days.

Finally, when they brought the car around, it had scratches in the bumper.   We discovered this and when we pointed at the scratches, they said it was clean when it came, but could have got scratches while parking!  How good an explanation was that?!   My friend agreed, such a nice guy he is, to come back after three days to receive the car, after all of these would be completed.

It actually took a week.   The attitude was callous, but my friend as a customer was accommodating.   How can such a service be rendered to a person who has decided to business with you? 


I strolled in one fine morning into the Toyota service center at 9 am  for my first car service (I had crossed the 1000 km and one month mark - but it was December and a busy month at that).   The gate formalities were done. 

The service executive told me that service was by appointment, but they would quickly check and see if they could accommodate.  Within 5 minutes another executive was assigned, details were taken.  The service aspects were again explained, the same coffee-water routine happened and I was told that the car would be ready by 2 pm.  

I told them that I would decide at around 2, whether I could be able to pick the car up or not.  At 2 pm, precisely the same service executive called.  I asked them to drop the car at home.  They did and at 3 pm confirmed that they had done it.

Then the routine feedback call came.   I told the caller that it was an exhilarating experience of customer attention and service.  

My wagon-R in Chennai got great
attention from ABT Maruti
I can recall the same level of service with the Chennai based ABT Maruti.  The service advisor, Ganapathy is his name, actually grew into a customer care manager but still used to personally take care my car's service needs.   Every time, over 5 years, the experience was great.

Both my cars have got motherly affection and professional attention by the car dealer all along.  The car brand, tech-specs and the driving experience are key factors in a customer's decision to continue with a brand or not.

But the touch given by a car dealer is so important for a car lover like me- right from the welcome kit to the welfare of the car!

- The One

(Pics - Courtesy The One)

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Resolution Number Four...

00:00 - New Year 2012.   Last night I had just spent time watching 'Enchanted' - rich animation in High Definition.   The distant popping sounds of the crackers and the bright floral display in the distant dark skies, marked my new year 2012 beginning.  
The first morning of 2012 - light at last
or hide and seek?

10:00 - This morning I woke with purpose.   The sun was playing hide and seek.   After a run and good breakfast, I hit the keypad.   Posted my run.   New year wishes and returns.   Done.  What else?

Ok  2012, here I come.   I set about making a set of resolutions - simple stuff, than a commoner like me to achieve.   Then it popped out.   The writing was on the wall... the facebook wall.   I clicked the 'OK' button and stared at it.    

It just popped, but there was a story
behind it!

Should I delete the post?   Should I let it be?   I did not know.  I do not know, now.   The 'status' update has been there for more than 12 hours now.   Some people 'liked'.  

The word 'commoner' would fit me - I could get lost in the crowd easily.   But that is OK.  

What is not OK is when you deem yourself to be a worthless.   This sense of deprecation coupled with ennui leads to something to achieve worthwhile.   When boredum and worthlessness combine, it is the biggest beast to beat.

A job is primarily to pay bills.  That definition, is true, when either you are doing what you have been doing all along, or you are doing what you are not liking.    What eventually you want is to do what you like?  What defines you? 

The reference could be from my very own life - I like meeting people.   I don't know whether others like meeting me, but I like doing it.    I feel I am OK at what I do.   The ups and downs of the self-esteem that I perceived as my identity crashed, when I gave it everything and it all came crashing down one afternoon of June 2009.

My running started as a catharsis for an identity crisis, magnified by that afternoon event.  I still continue to work, but I now understand the roller-coaster ride that can happen in a sales job, better.   But the more I ran,  the more I felt liberated.   The new identity was born - purpose was defined by goals and working to achieve them.   I could define various dimensions of me.  

I have been blogging for now 2 years.  My blogging started as a 'race report' stuff, but eventually started meandering into the esoteric and the abstract layers of the human mind - still about running. 

Eventually, thanks to an angel who reappeared in my life after a decade, the blogger-writer in me was born last August.   The second important reason for blogging more was that I also had started doodling on facebook.

I was boxed into so many crises' between August to October.    The vent was doodling.  I crooned, my facebook friends tolerated.   They 'liked' the positive things I said, the runs I posted, but for the cry of pain, the wall remained a wall.   There was no shoulder to cry.  But in the process, my discovery and journey in writing-blogging-doodling grew.
Behind those closed eyes- formed the resolution
number four!!!

The next test was persistency.   Would I be able to write continuously till the end of the year?  Or was it a part-time detour of self-discovery only to be back to the mundate routines of the daily life?   I think I can answer this question in the affirmative.

As I stand on the first year of 2012, the supposed year of the Mayan-apocalypse, I decided to take this discovery to the next level.  

Decided?   No.  It just popped out.   Resolved?  Well, err... yes!  That is how Resolution #4 looks 12 hours later.

-The One

( Pics Courtesy The One, Internet)