Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Close encounters with the state bureaucracy

Nearly one year back, the Government of India in its wisdom thought I measured up to the job and offered me to found an institution of national repute, representing one of the most prestigious brands of higher education in the country, in a new state in Northern India. The abbreviated name of the institution is - the perpendicular pronoun twice followed by a consonant.  The locale was rather bucolic and simplest of things took long to be done, because the people were tuned to slower pace, and marched to a slower drummer.  For example, nothing could be procured on a Wednesday. People took their Wednesdays more seriously than the most orthodox Sephardim Jews took their Sabbath. No work, no business meant exactly that, and more! I took it in my stride, more a compulsion than a choice actually. As the first year was drawing near, time came to request a bigwig to grace the first convocation.
I was getting a bit tired of sending innumerable letters, faxes and emails to the entire state bureaucracy seeking support. These letters never, it seemed, reached the addressee. Once a letter written to the highest elected official of the state was discovered by my subordinate lying with a Lower Division Clerk. In an act of desperation, I sought an appointment with the first citizen of India to invite him as the chief guest for the first convocation. Whether it was Lady Luck or the initials of the institute or both- an audience was granted with the first citizen of India.
Being a Mango person, brought up in dingy by-lane in the capital of a backward state, I had not met anyone famous in my fifty nine years, either by chance or through any notable achievement. Entrance to the giant brown stone edifice on Raisina Hill, walking through its awe inspiring corridors and magnificent rooms was a crowning achievement. My hands were trembling when accepting the proffered cup of tea by the impeccably dressed steward. I deliberately refused the steaming spring roll, not sure I’d be able to tackle it with the cutlery with adequate deftness or decorum. Then came the moment of truth- meeting the First Citizen of India, the Commander-in-Chief of Indian Armed Forces!
My knees were beating a staccato beat against each other, like a flamenco dancer’s heels accompanied by castanets. Butterflies in the stomach are a gross understatement, pterodactyls is probably more apt! I folded my hands in a namaskar to which the First Citizen responded and not only that, he stood up and extended his hand to shake hands with a mango person! For the next  twenty eight minutes exactly, the First Citizen read through our institute’s brochure, discussed what problems I faced in running the institute, asked incisive questions about recruiting  of faculty, getting companies to the remote location to recruit our students and many others, including where I had worked before taking over this job. Presto, we had a common bond! His elder son and I had worked for the same large public sector company and I was three years senior to his son. As I had left the industry to take up teaching in another institute, again with two perpendicular pronouns, followed by a different consonant, his son too had left the industry and joined politics.
Two days later, I get a phone call from the largest building in Lutyen’s Delhi informing me that the first citizen had agreed to grace the convocation on a date exactly one month from that day! The dream had come true!
And the nightmare began! Protocol demanded the request again be routed through gubernatorial office and the office of the highest elected of the state, while keeping the district administration in the loop. When this was complied with, the youngish civil servant actually demanded that the process be restarted, with a document prepared afresh according to his guidelines and that was to be sent to the titular head of the state and then on to the First Citizen’s office. The request having gone twice, starting from opposite ends of the chain, I kept on wondering whether these twins ever crossed their path. What came back had no resemblance to either!
Thus, having established that the Honourable Citizen No.1, no longer “His Excellency” by official decree, was indeed visiting this institute in this small town in the boondocks, the next step was to fix the venue. The bureaucracy was bent upon foisting a rundown, decrepit auditorium owned by one state government department, situated a kilometre away from the institute. The expectation was very simple in its essence. “We loan you this auditorium for one day, you pay for the entire renovation which is to be done by a sister organization, at rates fixed by us and you return the auditorium day after the convocation”. Adding insult to injury was the fact that this auditorium had been given to us on paper but never actually handed over. To top it all, the letter regarding use of this grand auditorium came from the concerned Commissioner, one day before the event! He must have commiserated with our problem and then got down to this act of supreme charity. This decrepit building, with a fine albeit crumbling facade, mildewed seats, rotten wooden paneling, a wooden stage that had collapsed and a broken down air-conditioning plant,  was inspected by a host of officials of the state administration, their immediate retinue and innumerable camp followers and pronounced suitable. Immediately, their counterpart in the police cordoned off an area up to forty feet away from the stage, spanning the first eight or so musty rows of seats.
Mystified, I enquired about this cordon. “This is the D!” “What dee?” I asked, totally clueless. He said, “But surely, the security D, as given in THE BLUE BOOK”. And he proceeded to display a brownish, tattered, dog-eared collection of papers, that was not only not blue but also did not resemble any book, at all. They were old pages kept together by the sheer weight of history and must have been formulated around the times of the Anglo-Gurkha War and designed to keep Lord Moira at a safe distance from any belligerent  local with a kukri, visiting his durbar or camp during his disastrous campaigns in this state in circa 1800. This government functionary was a rapt student of apt history. Has it not been said, “Those who do not read history are condemned to repeat it”? And there I was, trying to explain the not so subtle difference between a public meeting and a convocation, to a person who after all, had cleared the highest examination for entry to the bureaucracy and was responsible for a tract of land 3000 square km and roughly the size of the country of Guinea-Bissau, with nearly 1.7 million people in his domain, which was virtually his fiefdom!
The ludicrous proposal of paying rupees fifteen lakhs for one day for a decrepit auditorium, where half the seats were unusable and a quarter was to be cordoned off, was far from appealing. A perky subordinate of mine chirped, “But why are we calling the Citizen No.1 at all- to see this town or our institute? We should just say that space is inadequate and entirely too small for the Citizen No.1 and stick to our guns”. Armed with this brilliant one-liner, I approached the mini-suzerain and blurted out the same. And presto, he agreed!
So it was agreed that the convocation would be held in a field adjoining the institute’s temporary campus.
What took the cake was the issue of rendition of the National Anthem. A choir of children from a local school was requested to sing the National Anthem. During practice, the plenipotentiary from the police again took out his version of the ‘blue book’ and pointed out a relevant passage which talked of the anthem being either sung or played by a band and blah blah. The plenipotentiary pointed out that since the anthem was being ‘sung’, no instruments could be allowed! Flabbergasted and totally at a loss for word by the turn of semantics, I agreed with due deference! However, on the day of the event I managed to smuggle in a harmonium and a pair of tablas.
There were many such close encounters with the state bureaucracy during the one month of preparations for our convocation, and documenting all of them would result in a tome, which was beyond my literary capacity. These encounters left me decidedly older but none the wiser. I often sit down, reflect and ponder on how this great country of ours is moving at all! There must be a Supreme Being, clearly aware of all these machinations, and steering this country forward despite the bureaucracy!

A visit to a faraway shrine

Every religion has its godmen, shrines and places of pilgrimage; why should it be any different for the followers of the Royal Enfield Bullet? Most become followers in their youth, but with passing years, marriage, children and few accidents later, some repent and either convert or are forced to convert. Some succumb to the lure and inert stability of four wheels, while others migrate to lesser motorcycles, and the scum, those destined for motorbikers Hell, Jahannum, Narak -settle for scooters! When questioned, they come up with lame excuses and specious arguments, like “cannot bring home the grocery on the bike!" Or "wife’s sarees get soiled!” Only the honest confess that they do not have it in them anymore! Their mojo has vanished!!
Sorry for the digression, but it is necessary to prove one’s genuineness, authenticity etc, whatever! However, with five score and one year on life’s odometer, three Bullets at different times- the latest being a Classic 350 and at least six other motorcycles of different marques at different times, one is often dismissed as a crank, an outlier, and a reckless and irresponsible person! This, notwithstanding the fact that one has been married to the same person for thirty-two years and counting, acquired the higher academic qualifications, achieved a position in a reputed abode of higher learning and brought up one well-educated daughter in her thirtieth year, married. To put it bluntly, I am an unabashed, die-hard Bullet lover! As one of the many pithy sayings found on the WorldWideWeb, “I would rather be on my bike thinking about God, than in the church thinking about my motorcycle”! Huh! Walt Whitman said it better, about being on the open roads (on a bike- italics mine):
 "I am larger, better than I thought,
  I did not know I held so much goodness."
                        While travelling in Greece and France this June, during free time I would click parked motorbikes. The better half was indeed chuffed at me, neglecting to snap a picture of her against the famous landmarks. While sitting on a bench near Palais Garnier, lo and behold, a new red Enfield Café Racer! An unforgettable sight amongst the BMW, Suzuki, Honda, and some Moto Guzzi and the odd Triumph, and myriads of the mongrel abomination which currently seems to be sweeping Europe- the maxi-scooter! The very sight of the Café Racer evoked a heady mix of pride, nationalism and other indescribable feelings. But alas, no pictures, as I was almost transfixed by the unexpected!       
Every religion has its written dogma and fluid folklore. The folklore about Fritz Egli first came out in one such Indian automotive magazine, with glossy pictures of what he had done to our desi-Bullet, with details of the bumped up power and torque etcetera, somewhere in 1990s. Other than being a super mechanic/designer he also held some motorcycle land speed record.  It only added to the lore and aura. Since then, Fritz Egli’s name would crop up in one magazine or the other. The significant thing was that Bullets tuned by him were a totally different creature, performed admirably, sold for a packet and quite popular in distant Switzerland! So much so, he had a dealership for Royal Enfield Bullets in Switzerland!
                    Life sometimes plays strange tricks, and often restores the faith of the believer. Within a week, I find myself in Geneva at the invitation of UNCTAD. Sense of duty and propriety be hanged, on a dreary afternoon, when experts are grinding away eloquent at how to improve the competitiveness of Basutoland or some such, yours truly slinks away to the nearest train station under Geneva Airport. 
          The kindly lady at the railway booking office listens very attentively, charts my route by train, including changes at Neuchatel and Aarau to a distant small town called Lenzburg and the final bus journey from Lenzburg to Bettwil! The 2nd class ticket one way costs a whopping Euro 84 and I am on my way on a train journey through a picturesque route. Lunch is forgotten and I wait at the Lenzburg bus station gnawing at an apple waiting for Bus 910. An interminable 45 minutes later the bus comes and another 40 minutes or so later I am deposited at Bettwil. It is a tiny village and the road stops there and Haupstrasse is the only street! Finally, I am before the shrine.

An earlier phone call had confirmed that the deity was away in sunny Italy, but the next person Mr Lindeman had given me an open invitation to visit. Soon, I was shaking hands with the head priest of the shrine and a conducted tour ensued. One heady moment after another! A Brough Superior, made famous by Lawrence of Arabia. His was a Superior SS100, 1000cc v-twin, famous for its power and handling and demonstrated ability to ride hands-off at 100mph (160kmph)! This was the smaller sibling SS80- 800cc, impressive none the less. There was this handsome Enfield Interceptor, 735 cc, parallel twin and one of the hottest British twins competing with BSA, Triumph and Norton. It had been worked upon- aluminium tank, redesigned swing arms, dry clutch, disc brakes and other bells and whistles! There were the classic Norton Commando- last of the great British twins, with a great fan-following in the States, in avatars from 1970s till present resurrection!  Mr Egli runs the dealership for both Enfield  and Norton in Switzerland. There was a Norton Manx 500cc single, the most definitive of British racing singles. From early 1970s was a beauty, Honda CBX1000, all 6-cylinders gleaming, tuned by Egli.  There were an oddity or two- A Chinese flat-twin, copy of the Russian Ural, which itself was a bad copy of the BMW! There was a Sunbeam, the daddy of shaft drive motorcycles.

There was this Super Bullet 1000 Egli,    complete with dry clutch drive via rubber belt,   Brembo anchors built around the old cast iron engine, custom front shockers from forged aluminium billets, an Egli frame with swing arm made from square tube, short clip on handle bars.with added instrumentation for engine rpm, engine oil pressure and temperature and painstaking attention to details. This bike was probably the Egli interpretation of the original Café Racer, and granddad in spirit for the current!
There were four Moto Guzzi singles, with their sloping cylinder and fire-engine red livery and a rare BSA Rocket 3. Rare because it was one of the few transverse triple made in Britain and although Norton and Truimph have been resurrected in Britain, Royal Enfield in India, but not BSA. The new avatars of the old marques are still producing Triumph Bonnevilles and Norton Commandos. Mr Lindeman fired this one up and the triple has a distinct cadence, so very different from twins and tranverse-fours!
All good things come to an end. So ended my pilgrimage and soon I was on my way back to Geneva. Wish I can go back there once more!

Test riding the new pocket rocket: Bajaj Pulsar RS200

Just had the opportunity of riding the new Bajaj RS 200 over three day. Thanks to Mr Nagpal who owns the Bajaj outlets In this region and of course, Sachin Gupta, VGSOM 2005. I have to admit, given the roads and traffic in Kashipur, Uttarakhand, I could not ride it to its full potential, in fact, could not get the chance of putting the bike in to 6th gear!
First, the looks. The design is edgy, with the two projector headlamps recessed in to the facia, the creases and folds; you either love it or not at all! The handle bars are well designed, damp vibrations well. Digital speedometer and analog tachometer have big enough displays, but the million rupee question is when do you get to look at them? Not at least when you are riding. The swept tail, the split tail lamp are superb design features. The recessed grips for the pillion are interesting, but not very effective when you try to wring out max revs and the pillion is hanging on for dear life! The entire look is well put together, business like. The seat could have been few millimetres lower. At 5'8", my feet were touching the ground but not flat on both feet. Anyone shorter would not be able to put both feet on the ground. Bajaj designers may think of detachable pads for raising/lowering the seat.
The water-cooled engine is gem, and I think Bajaj have mastered 4-valves in a small engine well and definitely an improvement over the NS 200 I had ridden almost two years back. The gearbox is butter smooth, though I must confess, I could not get to 6th gear and could only hit 91 kph on 5th. Two discs, both back and front make braking a sure thing, aided by the ABS. Think about it, ABS on a motorcycle which costs less than Rupees one lakh! About a decade ago, ABS was something that was available on the race track and sports cars in the stratospheric segment.
Although I have not ridden the Ducatis and Aprilias of the world, this puny bike of 200cc is world class for something that costs less than $1600. A Ducati's set of tyres would cost as much. The thick USD (upside down, for the uninitiated!) front shocker tubes are sturdy but the travel is not suitable for bad roads.
The adrenaline rush this pocket rocket gives is priceless! Welcome to take the first step in the world of speed junkies on two wheels. Let me end my review by saying the following:
1. This is definitely not a bike for old men, and is meant for a young speed junkie only
2. This bike is not for offering rides, however short or long, to any female related or unrelated. The consequences of such an act, however charitable the intentions may be, would have very negative social consequences, including social ostracism! Only the girlfriend, fiancée or young wife are eligible for pillion rides.
I am eagerly waiting to try out the AS 200, the sibling which shares the same engine, but is designed for both good and bad roads with longer front shocker travel and more comfortable sitting posture with wider handle bars. More of that later.