Friday, 30 September 2011

Arabian Knight - Part Two

(Read first)

Part Three: Great Gig In The Sky

Scheduled to land in Mumbai at 2030hrs, my plane reached ten minutes early as if by magic! Clearly there's a greater force dictating all this, I thought to myself, as I pulled my rucksack out of the overhead cabin. Sadly, in India, no one respects another person's urgency - everybody is in a hurry, you see - so I had to wait in line to deboard the plane. Running the length of the Mumbai Domestic Terminal, I reached the spot for International Transfers. Another baggage check and frisking later, I was on the bus to the international terminal. It was 8:45. The driver told me that he could reach the airport in twenty minutes if he drove fast. I reminded myself that the flight would take-off at 9:15. If I ran, I could perhaps make it.

At 9:00, we were at the international terminal and Jet Airways had the decency to send someone to pick me up from the bus. The lady in blue began helping me fill out my Emmigration Form, when her phone rang. She nodded twice and then looked at me in the eyes. "I'm sorry sir," she said. "You won't be able to make it."

There was a thunderous silence, which was only broken by the ringing of my cell-phone. Ismail was on the line. I didn't pick up. "We'll put you on tomorrow's flight," she said. I nodded meekly.

SLB HR has a weird way of hitting you when you're on the ground already. So, I should have expected their call next. "If you're not in Abu Dhabi by tomorrow morning, we might have to cancel your training," said the sing-song voice on the other side. Brilliant.

I begged and pleaded with Jet Airways once more until they finally gave in. "We got you a seat on a flight to Muscat, sir. Then you can take Oman Air to Abu Dhabi. The flight is in one hour; so hurry up with emmigrations..." Suits me, alright!

Part Four: Check Mate

The emmigration queue, like all queues in Mumbai, is really long. But it moves really fast, like everything else in Mumbai. So, I prayed to God that everything would go well when my chance came. As luck would have it, I was sent to Counter Six, manned by a rather strict, bald, old-looking man. When I gave him my passport, I noticed that he looked bit like ACP Pradhyuman.

Everything had been moving smoothly until now - until the man said the words, "Kya bakwas hai yeh? Visa dikhao..." I showed him a copy of my visa. Scrutinizing it for a while, he said, "Main tere ko nahin jaane dega," and ordered me to follow him to an inner room (which resembled Hollywood's representation of a KGB interrogation room) where we met a rather stout gentleman.

"Yeh dekhiye sa'ab," he told his boss. "Inka documents sahi nahin hai... Mujhe nahin lagta inko allow karna chahiye." The boss looked at the documents and then looked at me.

"Sir," I told him, "The Emmigration Check is to protect unskill..."
"Are you teaching me my job??" he demanded. "What is your visa validity?"
"Well, my company got it for me. It's a short-term visa... I'm only going for training, you see."
"I don't see," he said. "It must be printed here on the visa, but it's not here." He was right. There was nothing about validity on the visa copy. Great.

So, I telephoned SLB again. "What's my visa's validity?" I barked.
"I don't remember exactly," came the prompt response. "But it's short."
"How short?" I asked.
"Well, the validity is printed on the back-side of your visa... but we didn't scan that side of the document."
You're a bloody genius, aren't you? I hung up. There was still one way out - my degree!

I waved the Provisional degree on his face and said, "Sir, this is a BTech from IIT... Surely, this'll help us resolve matters."
"Degree kahan hai?"
"Yahi to hai..." I said.
"Yeh Provisional hai... I need original degree. Layega kya?" said the smart man.
"That's not possible... Please tell me what I must do... I need to go," I pleaded with the unreasonable fool.
"Visa validity chahiye. Ask the airline guys - they'll have it," he said, after some consideration. 30 minutes to take-off!

I went to Jet once more, this time to ask for my visa's validity. They said that they'd need a few hours to search their database using some highly advanced queries. Murphy, you freaking genius...

But even Murphy get's it worng sometimes. Another official came up to me and said, "I'll tell you what... Try going to another counter. Try your luck again... It might work." So, he made me enter another section of the line.

Fifteen minutes left and the final boarding call was announced. I was summoned to counter 31 this time. On the other side sat a dark, young-ish woman who looked far more affable than the idiot at Counter Six. She took my passport, turned the page and winced. "Visa?" she asked. I produced mine.

"Twenty days," I said. "Here's my return ticket!" I showed it to her, trying to look as pleasant as possible.
"I need proof, no?" she said, almost staring through me.
"Ma'am, my flight has almost left! Besides, I'm going to UAE to study, not for work!" I lied.

Thoroughly confused, she began saying something when my name was announced on the PA once more.

"Ma'am, that call is for me... It's all in your hands now. If you stop me, you'll damage my life forever," I said to her slowly. She looked at me once again and then reluctantly, she banged the stamp on my passport.

Muscat, here I come!

Part Five: Private Plane

I don't have fond memories of Seeb International, Muscat, as I associate it mostly with leaving the beautiful country in 1999. All that has been changed now.

At 0040 Oman Time, the friendly Omani at the boarding gate called me, not by announcement but by gesturing with his hands. Then he told me, "My friend, I have some news for you... You are the only passenger on the plane."
"Only passenger... You understand? One only! Warahada..."

I don't know if I was flabbergasted, elated or anxious, but the next one hour was one of those special hours in one's life. As I entered the flight, I was greeted by both the air-hostesses, an Arab and a Filipino, who said, "Welcome to Oman Air. Choose your seat... You can take any one!" And they giggled.

I got myself a wonderful window seat in front of the wings. With a scheduled departure at 0120, the main flight attendant, a middle-aged Arab, walked up to me at 0105 and said, "If you are ready, we can take-off... Air-space clear, you see?"
Here he was asking me if I was ready for take-off! "Oh, alright! As you wish!"
"But first, we shall instruct you," he said, and the air-hostess was by my beside once more giving me personal instructions. The flight attendant even showed me where exactly the life-jacket was under the seat. (I've never been able to find it until today) "In case of emergency, we have two exits in front, two at the back and four over the wings... Choose your exit as you please, sir!"

Soon, we were in the air, and Capt. Wilson made his announcement. "Hi Mr. Anirudh, this is your captain... Hope that you are enjoying your VVIP flight. I don't have the privilege of flying too many passengers alone like this; thank you for flying with Oman Air. In case you need anything, please feel free to contact Ahmed, your flight attendant or any of the air-hostesses. Hope you have a pleasant flight!"

A few delicious Arab bites later, my flight came to a halt at Abu Dhabi International. As I left the plane, I used one of the words I read in on the in-flight magazine. "Shukran!" I said, raising my palm to my forehead.

"Aafwen," they said together.

Arabian Knight - Part One

As an escape from the usual codswallop I usually have you read on this blog, I bring to you this story from the land of Djinns and Flying Carpets. Below is a true account of what happened on September 23rd, 2011.

Part One: Fine Print

Schlumberger's 'Field Engineer' job profile is one of the most exciting jobs available to any person who calls planet Earth home, so it isn't surprising when you get your visa around 30 hours before D-Day H-Hour. An oil-man is expected to have nerves of steel. So, even when the ticket arrived just a few hours prior to take-off, I hardly shuddered (much unlike mom, who was completely in a soup). But as I've come to understand, even the seasoned oil-man can be rattled every now and again.

What happens when you don't read fine print, you may ask... My answer: It all depends upon what the fine-print says. If it says "Ensure that your passport has an ECNR (Emmigration Check Not Required) stamp before going to the airport", it just might be worth paying attention to.

With packing half-done at 1230hrs and my flight scheduled for 1745hrs, I was cutting it fine already. That was when I re-read the informative email. I cooly reached out for my passport and checked it with an air of nonchalant ease; all was fine and pretty soon, I'd be over the sea and far away, I thought. As I turned to the second page, I was met by the following words:

As you see, the Emmigration Check is in place to protect the unskilled Indian labourer from exploitation in other countries, especially in the Gulf. It shouldn't be much of a problem, I thought to myself. Since I had procured myself a provisional degree from Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, I couldn't exactly be classified as unskilled. And besides, I wasn't going to Abu Dhabi to work; it was just training.

All the same, when people around you hyperventilate, it sort of rubs off on you. Soon, there's collective hyperventilation, mass hysteria and pandemonium in general. Dad's contacts at the airport told me on phone that I had a fair 50% chance of clearing the EC. Dad getting worried, ordered me to zip my bags as they were and head staight for the airport. It was 1:15 pm.

Part Two: Telephone

Reaching the Chennai Domestic Terminal insanely early (at 1345 for a 1745 flight), I was met by a few officials who studied my passport carefully. They told me that there shouldn't be any trouble in Emmigration. In fact, if the flight was from Madras, they said that they'd be happy to ensure that I get through EC; however, since it was from Mumbai, they said that I'd have to talk sense into the officials there. That shouldn't be too hard, right?

My flight was scheduled to land at 1945hrs at Mumbai and the international flight to Abu Dhabi would take-off at 2115hrs. So, having checked my luggage straight through to Abu Dhabi, I relaxed over a coffee in the Chennai Airport Lounge. One never knows how time moves when you're in semi-sleep mode - so, after a while, I checked my watch again: 5:30. Why am I still not on the plane?

"I'm sorry sir, your flight has been delayed. It will depart at 6:30 pm," said the suave Jet Airways official who I wanted to punch. Controlling the impulse, I asked innocently, "Does that mean that the landing will also be late?"
"Oh yes," he said, happily.
"How do you plan to get me on your flight to Abu Dhabi then?"
"What flight?" he asked.
"Jet Airways to Abu Dhabi. It's at 9:15."
"Oh, that! I'm sorry sir... You won't be able to make it. Why don't you take tomorrow's flight?" he asked me, as if he was offering me tea in place of coffee.
"No, no... I need you to get me there, somehow. Anyway, I've checked my luggage through to Abu Dhabi," I pressed.
"That's not an issue. I can get your luggage off the plane," he retorted, gleefully.
"I'd like my luggage to stay where it is. Get me there somehow... Make your other flight wait a few minutes for me if needed! Isn't that why I've booked myself into Jet Airways both times??"
He told me that it'd hardly be possible.

Seeing that an impasse was reached, I telephoned the ever-helpful HR hotline at Schlumberger (SLB) which no one ever picks up. As usual, no one picked up. After a few minutes of frantic searching, however, I managed to reach somebody in SLB who transferred me to the bilingual travel agent who had booked my tickets, Mr. Ismail.

Mr. Ismail was furious with Jet Airways for their callous attitude. "How can they do this?" he asked me, righteously. "I don't know," I said. Meanwhile, the Jet Airways official told me that he'd fly me to Bombay if I was willing to undertake the risk of missing the connection and being stranded in Bombay. He assured me that Jet Airways at Mumbai wouldn't be helpful (unlike him) and they couldn't care less about one more passenger being stranded in their mammoth airport. He asked me "Are you ready to take the chance?"

Next, I talked to Ismail again.
"How can they do that!" he yelled. "Main bhi dekhta hun aapko kaise chordke jaate hain yeh log! It is their duty to take you," he said. When I relayed the message to the Airlines, "Who is your stupid agent?" they asked. "Who books two flights so close together? He seems a little soft in his head," they said.

There was only one way to resolve this! I dialled Ismail's number and handed the phone to the Jet official and told him, "Talk." He picked up the phone and began talking. He paced up and down as they abused each other as politely as they could and I noticed that they were close to discussing the issue at hand. Five minutes later, at 6:17 pm, he ended the call, threw me the phone and ran towards the tarmac through the boarding-gate. "Hey, what did you guys decide?!" I yelled. There would be no response.

As a normal person would do, I called up Ismail to find out what decision they had reached. The phone was still ringing when the announcement came loud, "This is the final boarding announcement for Mr. Anirudh Arun for flight..."

Oh crap. Okay, I'll take the chance, I thought. To Mumbai...

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Portrait of a Young Man as a Football Manager

Only after Football Manager 2011 have I even begun to comprehend the immense difficulties of managing a team. I'm quite sure the case is the same for any sort of management, but this job epitomizes leadership and genius. If the whole of our life was stuffed into 90 minutes of power-packed highlights, I'm sure it'd result in a game of football. Football after all is a reflection of life in the closest possible way.

Most of us have played various versions of PES and FIFA over the years and many of us consider ourselves tactical geniuses. Set a staggered 4-2-3-1, push your players up and play a short passing game and lo, you win the Champions League. Well, it would be that easy if everyone shared the exact same thinking-space like on your computer. Sadly, a game of football involves 11 different minds playing for your team. The probability that  any two of them independently have the same idea at any point of time is close to zilch. Well, that's where the manager comes in.

To impose your ideas on an entire squad is possibly the toughest task you can ask a man to do. Not only does he do that on the pitch, like begging the hot-headed Defender on a yellow-card not to throw himself into tackles, he needs to do it off the field as well. And that's something for which I've begun respecting AVB so much for. You would think it is impossible for a man of 33 who has never been a pro-footballer himself to handle legends of a club which has only recently tasted success. People like John Terry and Frank Lampard are probably as big as the club, and therein lies the problem.

While Sir Alex could threaten Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney with a good spanking now and then, and command awe and veneration from one and all with the simple question "Who's your daddy?", hardly any manager can claim to be the true daddy at Stamford Bridge. Thank you, Mr. Abrahamovich.

Surely, it couldn't have been easy at all for the manager of Manchester United in 1986, but he was given time... And time is the most precious commodity available to a manager of any sort. To cajole the Torreses into firing goals, to create legends like Leo Messi and to fill the CR7s with enough pride and vanity to etch them into footballing lore forever... all these require time. There is only one Mourinho - 2 Minute Success-Recipe - in this world and even he is to be tested over a long period of time. One could probably say that since The Special One was the closest anyone was to being daddy of a new Chelsea team in 2004 and a new Galacticos team in 2010 - hence, his jobs aren't the most difficult ones available.

I'm not taking anything away from TSO: it takes tremendous vision to see that Terry+Lampard+Drogba = GOOALLS; something Mancini is achieving through trial-and-error, buying everybody available in the market and taking United-want-aways. All I'm saying is that such success cannot live beyond the aforesaid manager's tenure. And the next guy in will almost certainly face the firing-squad. You can never change daddies overnight.

I'm writing this in the immediate aftermath of a 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford, one which has filled me with a new belief that AVB might be the man to change Stamford Bridge's destiny forever. Not often would I be in such high spirits after a loss but I feel this young man is a genius. The result could have been a lot different, and while we deserved no points from the game, the scoreline definitely doesn't say the whole story. 

One thing is apparent to me: this fellow AVB has, to use a euphemism, guts. But he'll need a lot more of that (those) to ensure that the legendary numbers eight and twenty-six come off the bench more often. The big man Drogba isn't going to be around forever either and he should be made to understand that. There's no point being a sentimental fool and having these fellows occupy space in a football pitch, hoping that one day they'll produce a glimpse of their glory days. I believe AVB is doing a great job by remaining in the good-books of men almost as old as himself - men who are more decorated than he is - while politely reminding them that they aren't as young as they used to be.

I just hope this fellow sticks around... For truly, the times, they are a-changin'!

Friday, 9 September 2011

F*ck-Ups Among Other Things

Seeing the drunkard of hadduland traversing the streets of Chennai isn’t something which one would call a rarity, but it isn’t commonplace either. So, when he announced his presence to me over the tele, I was quite glad… Soon, the venue and time of the rendezvous were fixed and with the car at my disposal, long distances daunted me no more.

Having completed a few chores, I called the aforementioned friend and told him that I’d meet him outside the gates of CLRI. And I did, after scouring the streets a little bit. So, with ‘Maine Banaya’ in the shotgun-seat, I decided to drive up to a decent bar – establishments which are as difficult to locate as Dragonballs.

All the same, I located a very respectable sports bar in Thiruvanmiyur and since the day was yet young, we expected no crowds and hence special service. Alas, the only beer he had was a Budweiser 675mL which cost a whopping Rs 290. Allowing logic to prevail, we touched nothing and left the place in peace.

“I’ll take you to another bar, man,” I told him. “Don’t worry, it’ll be much cheaper. But a lot less classy…” He nodded in eager agreement and I began the drive towards the slightly-seedy establishment.

Let me tell you up front that as a driver, I’m neither a zipper nor am I a vroomer. So, I don’t zip and vroom through the roads. Dodging the mean pot-hole might be something I’m yet not a master of, but my weaknesses end there. I am not a frequent driver either, so I’m still wary of the wheel: I’m not overconfident, see?

So how did the man walking alongside the car on my left manage to get his left foot underneath my left wheel? The question will remain unanswered as most important questions are, but the result was obvious. Blood.

One can drive in all the traffic in the world… It’s the pedestrians who fuck everything up. So, an onslaught ensued. While Rathish accompanied the man to the nearest hospital, which was luckily in clear view, I tried negotiating a tough U turn at a T-junction, which elicited questions like – “Dei, otta theriyuma? License irruka?” The incessant barrage of questions ceased only when I waved the RTO’s certificate in their faces!

I ran to the hospital to witness more blood. Then saline solutions, anaesthetics, sutures, analgesics and anti-tetanus injections… And then X-Rays. Well, I didn’t see anything wrong with the X-Ray and I can swear the man’s foot was perfectly fine. But he was in pain and perhaps the doctor wanted to make hay while the sun shined. So, I coughed up the cash.

And as my dazed luck would have it, the people involved would speak nothing but Telugu… So, I watched like a mute, illiterate idiot while Rathish and mom tried to make them see sense. What sense? Well, I don’t know.

In the end though, I’m left with one lingering feeling – that of pity. While I helped provide him with the best possible treatment, I cannot help but wonder what dastardly tricks fate plays on us. Two perfectly innocent beings going their separate ways – when this happens! It’s not my fault, but I’m not going to drive again… Not for a very long time.

P.S. Thank god we didn't touch that beer.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Important Conversations

" The point is, there may be three or four big choices that shape someone’s whole life - and you need to be the one that makes them. Not anyone else." - Mr. Wyatt, "After School Special", (Season 4) Supernatural.

There's nothing profound in the above quote; it doesn't say much we don't know already… But it's a line each one of us requires to hear from time to time. Without these rather meaningless reassurances, life would become unfathomably difficult. But I digress from the topic – the sentence which contains unquestionable truth.

These are the decisions which shape our lives, the difference between what is and what will be. They make all the difference between today and tomorrow. These decisions usually result in conversations, which are more often than not, highly unpleasant. Creamy, sugared dialogues aren’t usually the ones which take us to the land of our dreams.

Dissatisfaction is one of those special feelings humans are almost perpetually capable of… And it is this dissatisfaction with status-quo which throws us into that ‘I must change this’ phase. Although what needs to be done is generally slap-across-the-face obvious, we’re filled with trepidation before the final step. What happens if the whole thing implodes, destroying even the meagre happiness we currently enjoy? Is change really that essential; can we not live with it? Is the land on the other end of the bridge really what it promises to be?

In fact, we are so full of dread and angst that hardly can we muster the courage to take the final leap. We rehearse carefully, in our minds, how we will phrase our sentences and our questions – and we chisel these into perfection. Just when satisfaction is a step away, the complexity of the situation becomes completely apparent! What response will I elicit? How will I react to such a response? In the end, it’s all an intricate game of chess – and we’re all bad chess players.

When the moment comes, you are very aware of your epiglottis, now a massive flap blocking the larynx. Compared to the situation you are in, you’d hyperventilation really comfortable. Beads of perspiration run down your forehead and settle on your eyebrows as the first syllable begins to form on your tongue. And then you try to look at it from a third-person’s viewpoint at it all seems rather laughable. And then, you want to die.

It’s now that the conversation begins. You’re in a trance and you realize that the well-rehearsed conversation in your head has been thrown to the winds. Autopilot. You’re saying things so easily and you wonder why it seemed so difficult to surmount. Every setback you face in the dialogue, you wave away nonchalantly, and each point you win seems unimportant too. You wonder why you attached so much importance to the conversation in the first place! The words flow smoothly and the only person who is thinking before talking is not you. And then, you part ways in peace.

Ten minutes later, you try to remember what you said, the words you used, the points you made… You ponder about the impact your words had. You stomach is filled with cruel acid and you pray that it all ends well.