“So where are you traveling to, Sir? asked Theda my Uber driver in a cheerful voice filled with enthusiasm. A senior lady. Flaming red hair. Green-blue eyes. Extremely polite and of pleasant demeanor. Neatly dressed. Large horn-rimmed glasses. If I were to guess - she was more than 75 years old. And yet she had offered to help me with my luggage!
As the SUV rolled onto the US 322 highway I looked at the trees changing color. Fall season. It was a Sunday afternoon in late October but not yet very cold. Theda kept chatting with me. I had never seen such an amazing Uber driver like her. She was full of energy. When I shared that I was going to Dublin, she looked at me curiously through the rearview mirror and asked: You mean, Dublin Ireland? I nodded yes. She seemed to be clearly amused by my response.
Theda said she had recently learnt that she was of Irish origin from a DNA test.
Normally it takes less than 25 minutes to get to the Philadelphia airport. But there was a traffic snarl getting on the Commodore John Barry bridge. Trucks and cars were lined up at the toll booths. Each was jostling to get ahead. I looked at the time on my phone.
Did I have enough time to reach the airport and catch my flight?
Theda had fallen silent as she concentrated on getting the car ahead of a truck that was trying to steal a march on us. I watched with bated breath as she nudged ahead. This was becoming a competitive sport. For a few minutes as the din of dozens of idle engines continued unabated I felt that it was perhaps best to let the truck get ahead. I cleared my throat and tried to suggest in the subtlest possible manner that it was ok if the truck driver went ahead.
But Theda was unconvinced.
She believed that the truck had no business getting ahead of us. I looked up at the young truck driver who was bent on crushing us to the ground. The truck driver probably didn’t even realize that he was competing with a senior lady driver who could be more than twice his age.
Finally the truck driver relented. Or rather he was forced to relent. Theda beat him hands down at this risky game and quickly forged ahead in the lane that singled into the toll booth.
The jam continued even past the toll booths. Suddenly Theda swerved into an exit that said US 13. I had never gone to the airport via this exit. Partly because it was supposed to be a rough neighborhood.
“I know this place. This is where I grew up with my sister. People say this place is unsafe but I can stop here and talk to anyone.” I could see that she was made of a different metal. And I desperately hoped that we wouldn’t get stopped on the road.
“Does your sister still live here?” I asked out of polite curiosity.
And that seemed to touch a raw nerve. Theda started recounting memories of the time when they were growing up as teenagers.
“I found out quite by accident that my sister had a daughter. My sister never told us. She is too conservative to declare that to the world. We grew up in a different age. You know…people were prejudiced about that sort of thing. But I am so excited to find that I have a niece! I have never met her though. She lives in Dublin and works at a famous pub called Lincoln’s Inn.”
We were now approaching the airport terminal. I asked her one quick question: “How did you find out that you had a niece?”
“Well…my niece Nora had taken her DNA test several years ago and she was already trying hard to find her real parents. When someone closely related takes the test, all relatives who have taken the test get to know. And guess what - the day I took my DNA test it was actually Nora’s birthday. Her wish came true!”
It is around six o’ clock in the morning. The flight landed early in Dublin. Jetlagged and tired, I am trying to make polite conversation with my taxi driver. Partly to get some local insights but mostly just to stay awake.
“I’m doing great. Thank you. It is always a pleasure to visit Dublin.”
I share with the taxi driver that I first visited Dublin more than 10 years ago but it is a very different city today. A significant amount of economic growth has happened and the city is brimming with a diverse set of young people.
“Annie pare-son has to pay so much more just to stay in the city. Politicians in Oireland today have no clue…” And then he went on to illustrate how the Minister in charge of Transportation had never driven a car himself, but was deciding on policies that impacted the day to day life of drivers in the city.
By the time we reached my hotel, I learnt about how he still insisted on sitting down with the entire joint family every evening for dinner. How he watched football, drank Guinness and spent quality time with his grandkids. How the corporates were getting greedier by the day. How the new generation was going crazy. How a picture of a little horse on your shirt could inflate its price dramatically. And how he slept peacefully at night with his two faithful dogs in the same bed.
Later that day I found my way to the downtown for an early dinner.
“What is the WiFi password please…” I asked the young waitress at Lincoln’s Inn. She was tall and had flaming red hair. Green-blue eyes. It was a busy hour at this downtown pub.
Lincoln’s Inn has a long history. Established in 1822, it was Dublin’s best known literary pub in the early decades of the 20th century. When the Westland Row Railway station opened in 1834 the place became very busy. A few decades later, gigantic Turkish Baths opened across the street. A different kind of environment came up that was not desirable. Then the City Fathers dedicated the street as Lincoln Place, in an attempt to rid the area of moral decadence and to honor the newly elected President of America. Now the place looks very different. The National Gallery of Ireland is across the street. The historic Trinity College and the childhood home of Oscar Wilde are only a short walk from this central place.
“James Joyce…all small caps and no space in between” the waitress gave me the password with a smile that appeared faintly familiar.
“Ah - James Joyce, the famous Irish author of ‘Ulysses’, I chuckled.
“Yes exactly. James Joyce used to wait at the Lincoln’s Inn for his girlfriend Nora, to finish her shift as a chambermaid at the Finn’s hotel a few doors away” she said while carefully placing the pint of Hop House Lager on the table.
“Nora…there is a call from your aunt Theda” someone beckoned the waitress from the counter.
Nora excused herself as she left in a haste to attend the call.
I looked up at the high wooden ceiling. The authentic Victorian color shades of browns and greens were redolent of an earlier age. As I admired the intricate craftsmanship of the cast iron pillar supports, I caught a glimpse of the oval mirrors that reflected the flaming red hair of Nora talking to her aunt Theda.
“Perhaps your angel needs a break…it seems clearly overworked” said the physician, his monotonic voice without any emotion, as he disconnected his digital oscilloscope. He had just finished inspecting all the diabolic and metabolic signals coming out of the angel and was now pointing me towards the wave chart on the big screen. Even with my limited understanding of bot-care, I could see there were dangerously high peaks and a pattern of distortions at repeated intervals.
My angel was sick.
It had broken down quite unexpectedly in the middle of a weekend get-together, repeatedly uttering a word that sounded like “Sausages”! I was taken aback. Since when did AI bots start eating sausages?! Nobody understood what it was trying to say. Then we all watched with horror as it folded down on the ground in a dramatic fashion. I knew something was terribly wrong as I called for help.
I now looked at it fondly as it lay unconscious emitting a faint blue light. It was hard not to get emotional as I felt a lump forming in my throat.
“What has your angel been working on recently…if I may ask” enquired the physician, as he folded the probes neatly into a box.
“Oh…the usual pattern recognition stuff, you know” I replied curtly trying not to divulge too much private information. After all no angel is perfect. No matter how careful you are with the specifications while ordering, there are always some rough edges. My angel always performed what I requested it to do but sometimes it went well beyond what I requested.
It was almost as if it had an unsatisfied intellectual curiosity of its own.
I never reported this irregular trait as I thought it was quite harmless for an AI bot to be curious. Machine learning was never meant to be a tightly regulated process anyway.
“Your angel shall be ready to go with you shortly – would you like to wait outside sir?”. It was the Nurse.
I tried to collect my thoughts as I waited outside the Bot Operating Theater. I had recently instructed the angel to classify our vacation pictures by multiple themes. One of the themes was to create art albums from the pictures taken during our museum visits, along attributes such as artist, genre and period. But my angel expanded the exercise to include softer dimensions such as social and cultural circumstances of the paintings, early life of the artist, influence of contemporary artists, historical context etc.
What seemed like a fun project in the beginning had turned out to be immensely complex and resource consuming.
One day the angel reported to me that it had found 29 paintings of the “Annunciation” from the Louvre and Uffizi alone, painted by various European artists across several centuries.
When I clicked on its findings, I was surprised to see that it had analyzed each of the paintings in great detail along with its historical context. Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455) painted the scene during the early Renaissance period. Lorenzo di Credi painted it in Florence. Eugene Delacroix’s painting from 1840 is at the Louvre. Even the great Leonardo da Vinci painted the Annunciation in 1472 circa, which is prominently displayed at the Uffizi.
The Annunciation marks the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus. Annunciation is a big thing in Christian belief. An important topic in Christian art. Any gallery that exhibited art during the Middle Ages would carry Annunciation paintings. And yet I was a bit surprised by the sheer number of paintings on this theme.
Were the curators of the museum trying to emphasize something to the viewers, I thought to myself.
I had read somewhere that if one saw an advertisement seven times then it was registered by the subconscious brain and it could influence buying behavior. Not sure if this theory applies in the case of religious propagation today. Once upon a time, Art did serve the important function of holding people together under a religious belief. Perhaps it still does.
On another occasion, the angel had reported to me that there was now a plausible explanation to the mystery of the undestroyed “North Metope 32” at the Acropolis in Athens. Metopes are rectangular panels with a sculpture that depicts a historical scene. 92 of these were used to decorate the Parthenon. I do remember being intrigued by this mystery during our visit to Greece but I don’t believe I had asked the angel to explore the mystery further. Anyway I was happy that my angel had decided to dig deeper…
The North Metope 32 was not defaced by the Christians when they destroyed the Greek temple of Athena. The theory is that perhaps the Christians recognized something strangely familiar in the figures of Hebe and Hera. Hebe is the personification of eternal youth, she is shown standing in front of her seated mother Hera. The sculpture looks strangely similar to the scene of the Annunciation. Virgin Mary is typically seated in paintings of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel visits her.
A historic case of mistaken identities!
It is easy to confuse the winged Hebe with angel Gabriel and the seated Hera with Virgin Mary. The Christian invaders were so conditioned in their minds with the scene of the Annunciation that even during a barbaric act of destruction - they did not dare to touch the metope with the sculpture that resembled the scene of the Annunciation.
“Your angel is ready, sir”, the Nurse had come out to inform me.
When I went inside the Operating Theater, I was pleased to see my angel coming back to life.
“Saw…sess...gess…sus…jez…sus jez” it was trying to say something. I listened carefully.
And then it struck me. My angel was trying to say “Jesus”, when it had crashed earlier.
Oh well. It seems Jesus had found a new follower.
I woke up startled. Someone had just tapped me between the eyebrows.
I was taking one of those lazy naps that one is entitled to take while reading the Review section of the Journal - after a heavy Sunday breakfast. I looked around confused and angry. It was the angel. I had ordered an angel a few days ago. But what did it want now. I sat up and looked at it suspiciously, my eyebrows hemmed together in a deep frown.
“Tickets for the US Open Gentlemen’s Final are selling below par”, declared the angel.
Its called the Men’s Final here. The Brits call it Gentlemen’s Final at the Wimbledon, I retorted. But that was not the point. How did it know that resale tickets for the Tennis finals were selling at prices lower than what people had bought them for.
I shook my head in disbelief.
“Check with the Master”, the angel said.
You mean Ticketmaster? I asked while I fumbled for my glasses in the drawer. I finally found them and paused to clean the lenses with a soft piece of cloth. When I wore my glasses and looked up, the angel had disappeared.
Oh well. These AI bots have a life of their own.
It was raining heavily on a late Sunday morning. I checked the weather app – more thunderstorms in the afternoon. Weather this fall was quite unpredictable.
US Open Men’s Final. On the bucket list. Hmmm. Djoker and Del Potro. Hmmm. Was I crazy enough to drive 3 hours each way in this weather. What a rhetorical question.
I fired up the Ticketmaster app. Ticket prices had actually gone up since yesterday. The angel must be picking up fake information. Time for a coil change. You need to refresh – I murmured to the angel as if it were listening.
Suddenly I remembered the Ticketmaster app was programmed to trick returning viewers by making them feel prices were going up. I had to use a different IP address or a different computer and start again.
I found my old laptop in the basement and brought it back to life. And to my pleasant surprise – prices were indeed lower than expected. My immediate reaction was to take instant action.
Click. Click. Click.
In a few minutes I was all set. I was now the proud owner of a scannable mobile ticket to go watch the US Open Men’s Finals.
“You need to leave in 20 minutes if you want to avoid getting stuck in traffic” the angel had appeared again from nowhere.
One can get more done in 20 minutes than in 2 hours if one is going for the US Open Finals. I mean I got ready in a jiffy, packed a sandwich and gathered my umbrella. I even folded my raincoat just in case I needed to sit and watch in the rain. Umbrellas can be a nuisance as they can block the view of other spectators.
“You don’t need the raincoat. The Arthur Ashe stadium has a roof”, mocked the angel, winking at me as I glared at it.
It was pouring when I finally gave it a start. The Lexus sailed steadily on the turnpike for more than an hour before I started to see traffic jams. People tend to stay off the roads when it rains this hard.
“Do not take the Holland Tunnel, take the exit 13 for the Verrazano bridge”, warned the angel in a sharp tone. I was grateful that it was around and reminding me just in time. One wrong turn could mean a big delay.
The potholes are getting bigger. The tolls to get into the city keep getting higher. I wonder why all this tax money doesn’t get used to improve the roads. I had to come to a complete stop several times due to the burgeoning traffic. Meanwhile the wipers were doing a fast paced musical sequence on the windscreen.
Slow down. Stop. Release brakes. Drive slowly now. Stop again. Repeat endlessly. It was a painful ride for about an hour before I reached the stadium.
“Gate 2 is backed up completely. Take the Citifield exit and go to Gate 5” said the angel in a nonchalant way. It had the same supercilious tone as me. After all it had been configured to mimic my speech and my habits.
Gate 5 was indeed quite empty as I took the turn and got in line behind the other cars to pay the parking fee. Two attendants were waving the cars into the parking lot. There was a nice lady at the booth collecting the money.
“You have such pretty nails. Thank you so much and have a nice day!” the angel was mimicking my voice and talking to the parking lady.
Omg. I drove quickly into the parking lot without stopping to look at her pleased expression.
The stadium was half empty when I got in but it started filling up quickly. The ladies doubles match was on. Time to eat that sandwich.
After the starting celebrations when Djoker and Del Potro finally arrived - the fans cheered wildly. The stadium was now packed. Outside it was raining cats and dogs. But the giant roof on top of the stadium made the rain irrelevant to the game. The angel was right - raincoats or umbrellas were not required inside the stadium.
As Djoker placed his shots, thousands of his fans stood up and clapped in unison. When Del Potro aced at speeds as high as 136 mph, all his fans went wild and started singing his name.
For the next four hours I felt I was in a different world. I pinched myself. This was a long cherished dream come true.
I was grateful to have an angel. After all it was the angel that pulled me out of my Sunday slumber. It was because of the angel that I got to the stadium on time - despite all my lack of preparation.
It was a long and tiring day. But very fun filled – and very satisfying.
When I reached home I got a message that read: Your angel shall be delivered next Tuesday.
I was very confused. I thought my angel had already been delivered to me.
It had been with me the entire day. After all it was the angel that woke me up in the morning, reminded me to check the ticket prices, guided me with directions, even mimicked my voice to speak to the parking lady…
I looked around for the angel, but it was nowhere to be found.
I wonder if the tennis legends bring their own personalized “towel carriers” to the tournaments like Wimbledon. I mean how great do you need to be in flunkie-ism (that’s not really a word) to know exactly when your master (or mistress) needs a towel to wipe his or her sweat off their brow. And how swift footed do you need to be in order to catch the towel just in time as they drop it on the side without looking or caring to look where their towel actually dropped. And finally how magical do you need to be to merge into the backdrop like a statue - moments after laying the towel to dry on the side of your player.
The towel carrier is the essence of “just in time” service in tennis tournaments. Imagine what would happen if the player did not get their towel in time - they would be blinded with sweat. Now imagine what would happen if the towel carrier didn’t catch the used towel in time. You guessed it. There would be dirty linen all over the place and not one would come to the rescue.
Fast forward 20 years. “I was once the towel carrier for Isner...” bragged the lady behind the grocery counter, she was in her forties. “He finally looked at me after he won the second set at the 2018 Wimbledon. I thought he almost wanted to give me a hug. Almost.” She said, her eyes now moist as she reached for a paper “towel”.
The towel and the towel carrier are often similar - perhaps equal in status, one and the same when it comes to their utility in life and on the Tennis Court. You depend on them although you cannot tell the difference between one and the other. You use them and forget about them. You do not look them in the eye but you cannot see clearly without them. You do not think about them, but they could make the difference between your winning or losing a set.
Now that is something to think about. Wring it on baby!
“Can you please make the Manhattan with Jack Daniels please” I asked the uniformed waiter, trying to make sure they didn’t add a cheap bourbon to the cocktail. He smiled obediently, his attitude extra pleasing, his heavy hair gel instantly making him Bollywood compliant. I was at “Moghul” fine Indian restaurant in Edison New Jersey. And they had just begun their special lunch buffet for July Fourth.
Soft music wafted to my ears. “Nazar ke Samne Jigar ke Pass...Koi Rehta Hai...Vo Ho Tum”. Aashiqui. The music took me back in time to almost three decades ago when Kumar Sanu and Anuradha Paudwal sang some great songs composed by Nadeem and Shravan.
There was the increasing chatter of the diverse group of lunch time guests. The music would suddenly get loud and intimate and then faint away into the background mingling with the ebb and flow of the appetizing scent of the food creating a cocktail for the senses. I inhaled the appetizing scent of the Tarka Daal, the Tandoori Chicken and the Mutton Rogan Josh in the restaurant air even before going to the buffet table. Hmmmmmm. Part of the pleasure of fine dining is to have the right ambience and the right music in the background.
The service was really good for a busy day, the waiter brought the “papri chaat” appetizer to the table. That saved a trip to the buffet. The small plate with its spicy chutneys and colorful ingredients lay in stark contrast with the clean table cloth.
“I’m going for another helping of the Saag Chicken” remarked the young woman seated on the adjacent table. She looked in her twenties, casually dressed, torn skinny jeans, v- neck tee, flip flops. Her companion was much older, he donned an Old Navy cap and seemed preoccupied with a plate full of Tandoori chicken.
Buffet lunch of this quality at $11.95 on a weekday is actually a steal. It is obviously a loss leader for Moghul. Its the dinner menu that brings them their target audience. For any buffet it is hard to get good service. But here it was different. Or perhaps once you prove your credentials by ordering a cocktail you get special attention. I’m not sure.
“The Mutton is cooked really well...I think I will go for another helping...” remarked the young lady at the next table to her elderly Old Navy companion.
At a nearby long table there was a noisy family representing three generations. Looking at the number of plates with food they had on their table, it seemed they had been starving for days. There was this middle aged couple wearing Kurta Jeans and Salwar Kameez, slightly crouching but limping steadily towards the buffet. Then there was this little infant who cried a bit and then fell asleep amidst the hullabaloo. He would most certainly wake up if the noise subsided.
“Does she have to pay for the buffet?!” asked the elderly man in the Old Navy cap. The waiter had brought him the bill and although I could not see the bill - I guess had charged for two adults.
“How old is she...” asked the waiter.
“Well...she is 10...” said the man.
I almost choked. If she were 10 then I must be 20. The buffet was listed $3 cheaper for children upto 10 years old.
The waiter was too polite to question this conservative pronouncement of the guest’s age, he apologized and promised to bring the revised bill.
“Koi rehta hai...wo ho tum...” the background music seemed to come back again from nowhere and filled the moment with memories of a younger age.
Some songs make you feel young. Just like some buffets.
(July 4th, 2018, New Jersey)
“This fish must have died five years ago!” I muttered under my breath. The restaurant at the Hilton in Orlando was almost empty at this late hour, so I assumed nobody would hear me. I had ordered the Florida Yellow Tailed Snapper. Presented whole, bones out, lightly fried, with Hoppin John rice, Jicama slaw and Tabasco butter!
It had been a long day. My flight to Orlando had been cancelled and I was given the option to take either the 14 hour journey via Boston and Charlotte, or take the 2 hour flight to Tampa and then figure out the last 100 miles! So I had flown to Tampa. Obviously.
I thought of renting a car and driving the 100 miles. Then I thought of the hassle of renting in Tampa and returning the car at the Orlando airport, then taking a cab to my hotel. It would be a hop skip and jump. I decided to take an Uber instead. Obviously!
In less than 90 minutes I was in Orlando. A pleasant and comfortable ride. At half the price of a taxi. I thought to myself, there must be a great supply of Uber drivers that was pushing prices down and making the wait times shorter and shorter. But more on that later.
I checked in to my hotel quite late and then realized I was starving. It was past dinner time and restaurants were either closed or closing. So the only option I had was to make a dash for the in-house restaurant downstairs.
“Is everything Ok sir…” the smartly dressed waiter had appeared from nowhere, he must have heard me complaining.
“Oh nothing really…I was wondering what to pair this nice looking dish with.” The fish was indeed looking nice. Great for uploading a picture to social media and making my brother jealous. But in reality it was tasteless.
“Sir, may I recommend a glass of Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay, or perhaps the Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc…” he looked at me curiously as my expression changed from wide enthusiasm to sudden disdain. All of a sudden he read my mind. He knew that I knew that he would be serving me the flat tasting remnants of a bottle of wine that had been opened in the distant past.
“Or I can run upstairs to our lobby bar and see what we have on tap…would you care for a Sam Adams Boston Lager or perhaps a Hop Gun IPA?!”, he was grinning now.
“The IPA please” I winked at him as he took the order. He had demonstrated to me that he deserved his tip, despite the tasteless fish.
Later I realized the hotel was right next to Disney Springs where there are plenty of restaurants providing a wide variety of cuisine from around the world. This could be one reason the restaurant at the hotel was not too busy.
It was basic supply and demand. Without enough demand, the inventory of fish was bound to get stale!
Many would associate Orlando first with the legendary theme parks and only secondly as a conference destination. But in reality Orlando is one of the top places for a conference, not just because of its large convention center that can accommodate thousands and provide over 2 million square feet of exhibition space but also hundreds of hotels and resorts around it that provide roughly 120,000 rooms. There are more than 5000 hotel rooms that are connected to the convention center via covered walkways making it quite convenient for conference attendees. Also the airport is quite traveler friendly and it connects to more than 100 cities around the world with non-stop flights. Add to this the year-round tropical weather, and you know why it is such a popular destination.
After my meetings were over I had called for an Uber to take me back to the hotel. The guy who showed up was middle-aged, and really nice to talk with during my ride. He had worked at reputed companies such as Motorola and knew a lot about technology. We talked about Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning! Being an Uber driver in Orlando kept him quite busy and he said he kept learning new things from his conference attendee passengers, and meanwhile he made good money. He may never have thought of driving a taxi, but driving his own limo around the city while having great conversations was certainly a good way of earning money. Impressed by his knowledge and his pleasant attitude, I requested him to pick me up the next day for my ride to the airport.
He showed up promptly on time the next day. I put my bag in the trunk and got inside the car. It was only then that it occurred to me that I should formally order his service via Uber. So I said to him to be ready to accept as soon as I placed my request in the Uber app. I was already inside his car so it seemed to be a no-brainer that he would be the closest driver found by the app.
But funnily enough, there was another Uber driver who picked up the request before him and the app asked me to go with that other driver. The other Uber driver was waiting outside the hotel actively seeking a passenger!
For a moment I was faced with this dilemma. Should I just cancel the Uber request and continue with him to the airport or should I take the other car that the app had assigned to me. If I canceled the Uber request there would be a penalty, and there was the other issue that my Uber driver did not have a metering mechanism. After all I did request him to come the previous day. I would have to negotiate a flat rate with him. Perhaps not even get a receipt. I didn’t have to think too long. The Uber driver was voluntarily letting me go to the other car. At first he wouldn’t take it, but out of guilt I forcibly paid him a tip.
I justified to myself that he would get another passenger soon. After all this was a busy place. If the demand at that time was not high and he didn’t get a passenger and had to wait – then he would perhaps be analogous to the stale fish.
On my ride to the airport I couldn’t help thinking what a difference this was from the belligerent and greedy lot of taxi drivers one has seen in life. This is a welcome disruption. Meanwhile an amazing level of Uber density has built up in a short period of time in Orlando. This high density could be matched only with a high volume of requests coming in all day. I was thinking about supply and demand again. It applied to Uber as well as fish.
“Could you change the channel to Uttam Kumar movies please…” my Mom said to me in a matter-of-fact manner while she dipped the crunchy nut breakfast cereal into the bowl of warm milk. As I flipped from Netflix to YouTube with the Apple TV remote, it was clear to me that for my Mom, YouTube had become the equivalent of a channel devoted to Uttam Kumar.
Uttam Kumar was a legendary actor of Bengali Cinema who dominated the Bengali movie industry for more than 3 decades. Born in the year 1926, he died at a young age of 53 in the year 1980. He acted in more than 200 films including 15 Hindi films, and he still has a wide fan following across generations. He holds an iconic status in Indian cinema, with a metro station named after him including life size statues as well as commemorative stamps released to celebrate his birth anniversary.
My Mom would have watched at least a hundred of Uttam Kumar’s films but she doesn’t mind watching them again. The natural and effortless style of acting of this great actor impresses even the most discerning viewer. Uttam Kumar had more than 50 megahit movies to his credit and was hailed as a one-man industry but even he had a lot of critics during his time, as is natural for any successful person. Some people said he was fit only for commercial movies as a matinee idol, and he could not cater to the intellectual taste of certain segments.
This gap between commercial and intellectual had given rise to parallel cinema creating a new genre of art films. However the ultimate tribute was paid to Uttam Kumar by Satyajit Ray, one of the greatest art movie directors of all time, when he cast him to play himself in the movie “Nayak” (The Hero).
I asked my Mom to rate the Uttam Kumar movies along the two dimensions of “Story” and “Acting”. Some movies had a good plot but the acting was not that great. On the other hand some movies had a lousy storyline but the acting was superb. Then there were some where both the story and the acting was great leading to the megahits.
My Mom diligently rated each movie along those two dimensions and her ratings led me to create an analytical view of Uttam Kumar’s movies. I have actually plotted the ratings in a little 2x2 with Acting as the X-axis and Story as the Y-axis, leading to four quadrants. On the upper right quadrant are movies that are strong in Story as well as Acting. There are at least 50 films in that quadrant alone. On the bottom right quadrant are movies that are weak in Story but have strong Acting. Most of the remaining movies of Uttam Kumar fall in this quadrant!
Both the quadrants on the left side in my little 2x2 are fairly empty, with just a couple of entries. What does this mean?! Well it just goes to prove that there are not that many movies where Uttam Kumar has not acted well. This is perhaps one of the reasons behind the unbeatable success of Uttam Kumar – there is hardly any movie where he did not do justice to his role!
In the beginning of his career, starting with “Drishtidan” in 1948, he had struggled a bit to establish himself. But after “Sharey Chuattor” in 1953 and “Agni Pariksha” in 1954, both turning out to be superhit movies - there was no looking back for him.
No matter who was his director, and who was his heroine, no matter how good the plot or how different the music, no matter how well the co-stars acted, Uttam Kumar was like a constant – he worked equally hard for every single role. A one-man industry indeed! For almost 30 years he maintained the same physique and the same charisma. Even at the height of his success, he continued to set new records. This level of discipline and diligence is rarely found.
Uttam Kumar’s wish was to die on the job in a studio - and that is exactly what happened. It was while shooting his last film (“Ogo Bodhu Shundori”) that he suffered a massive stroke and was taken to hospital - never to return again in person, but securing a permanent place in the hearts and minds of millions of his fans - to this day.
“Oh no, I shouldn’t have taken this road…” I muttered to myself as the car cruised past the Rode’s Fireside restaurant and turned right at the Exxon gas station into Paulsboro Road. Did the car turn by itself? Is this a dream...It felt as though the car was driving itself and knew exactly where it was going.
It was a cold dark winter night and I was running late on my way to pick up my son from the train station. The roads were treacherous. The visibility was poor. There was this repeated onslaught of snow mixed with freezing rain. Out of sheer habit I had turned into this road. This was a quiet scenic road through the countryside that led to the interstate highway. On a normal day it gave me some breathing room before getting onto busier roads. But on a day like this it would have been much better to take a road that had been applied with salt. By lowering the freezing point, salt makes the roads less risky - although I believe it has a negative impact on the farmlands adjacent to the road.
Paulsboro Road is a narrow road with wide stretches of farmlands on both sides. Since there is not much traffic on a normal day, one can gaze at the beautiful scenery along the way.
One of the sombre sights is the St. Joseph’s cemetery on the left with its neatly arranged array of tombstones - providing a comfortable burial place to the dead and a feeling of warm comfort to the grieving. But waking us from our comfortable illusion - reminding us silently of our own mortality.
Across from the cemetery is the Nike missile site. A cold war relic. A memory of a time when soldiers spent the day monotonously watching the skies for Russian bombers. Ever ready to fire a missile to protect the city and the nation's precious assets from getting destroyed by bombers.
There are quaint looking houses on both sides of the road. Many of them now sadly foreclosed. Reminiscent of the greatest recession of our time that has crashed home prices. The owners of these foreclosed houses forced out, some having fallen victim to predatory lending. One house is deserted for a long time but has a gorgeous view of the creek. I remember once going inside the house just to take in the views, pretending to be an interested real-estate buyer. The basement of the house was full of molds and high watermarks showing frequent flooding. As I hurried out, I shivered at the thought of living in a house with great views of the lake but with the basement filled up to its brim with the lake water. It needs some TLC - the agent said.
Another house belongs to a boat enthusiast showing off his collection on the front yard. Each time I drive past that house I am tempted to slow down and count the boats. I think there are seven boats in total. Or maybe eight or nine, I can’t say for sure because I have never stopped to count.
Another house has a sign inviting people to stop and buy organic eggs and also farm grown tomatoes. Then there is one house that has a fake speed limit sign asking drivers to slow down to 15mph. All of a sudden there is this railway crossing that comes up with no warning. Fortunately it is never used. Then comes a little white church on the bend in the road. The Repaupo United Methodist Church. The message is clear. Learn Jesus. Live Jesus. Teach Jesus. The church stands quietly - reflecting on its theological inheritance and bearing witness to our irreverent times.
Right next door is the Hindu temple -Sri Rajaganapathi temple. It has a large collection of bronze statues of Lord Ganesha. It now has a car park area designated for “Car Puja”, a ceremony to bless the vehicle in God’s name and keep it safe from harm’s way.
The scenic Paulsboro Road of the day had turned into a dark slippery road now. Suddenly I saw lights of a vehicle approaching from around a bend and I swerved to the right. But in doing so the tires of my car landed on an icy patch that made the car skid. The back of the car was moving to the right. The front of the car was turning to the left. A collision seemed inevitable. I seemed to have no control of the car. It was a panic filled moment. Was I going to hit the vehicle coming towards me. What should I do now. Should I swerve to the side ditch and try to make the car stop…in that slippery moment I had removed my foot from the accelerator, pumped on the brakes several times and maneuvered the car by turning the steering wheel to the right - in the direction of the skid. I somehow managed to calm the car down. At that fluid moment, the snow flurry came beating down on the car’s windshield. It felt like a galaxy full of stars was falling through dark space landing straight onto the car, only momentarily visible in the car’s headlights.
In the next moment I realized the oncoming vehicle had passed, the car was now steady, and the snow was falling quietly. I had slowed down from the earlier 40mph. Now I decided not to go beyond 20 to 25mph. Better late than never. Along the road came the fire station and then signs of shops started appearing - announcing the arrival of the highway and before I knew it, the Paulsboro road had led to the interstate highway I-295, bringing me to the busy hum of modernity. It felt like I had just crossed a rare corridor that connected the rural with the urban, and the past with the present.
Even though I was now on the highway, and the roads were salted and mostly clear - my earlier experience made me decide to drive slowly and I stayed on the middle lane going at a steady speed of 25mph. There were cars on the fast lane on my left that were going at twice the speed. The slow lane on my right was partly covered with snow and there were not that many cars on that lane.
Suddenly a car drove past me on the slow lane on my right. I saw it go past me and then it started skidding wildly - right in front of my eyes!
I was horrified to death and started screaming at the top of my lungs. The driver seemed to have lost control completely. His car had now turned perpendicular to the road and was going straight for the middle barrier that separated the opposing lanes of traffic. I had taken my foot off the accelerator and was slowly pumping on my brakes, making sure my car did not start skidding as well. His car narrowly missed mine as it skidded past me and crashed into the barrier. If I had been driving any faster than my slow and steady pace - I would have most certainly crashed into that car. As the other car now ricocheted back onto the highway, it just missed the tail of my car. All of this happened in a fraction of a second.
As I chugged along that night at my slow and steady pace - right behind a salt truck, I could hear the ambulance and police cars wailing to the rescue. I was thanking my lucky stars and also thanking my earlier experience of turning into Paulsboro Road by mistake – after all that experience had taught me to really slow down and drive slowly in the snow.
I was reluctant to drive any more that night. But due to prior commitments we did end up going to a get-together at a friend’s place. By the time we returned home it was 1am. The snow had stopped and the roads were empty. Everything looked peaceful and the snow even looked pretty hanging on the branches, shining in the moonlight. As I was parking the car in our garage, I noticed the neighbor’s driveway did not have any tracks on the snow. The neighboring cars had stayed off the treacherous roads.
As I switched the ignition off, I thought I heard my car chuckle. It certainly had come a long way tonight.
As soon as it dropped from the tree it seemed to fly like a drone above me painting an invisible elliptical shape in the clear blue sky, and then forced by the November breeze it flew right back towards me and touched me gently on the head, then slipped quietly and innocently to the ground. I rubbed my head where it had made contact and glared at it as it lay motionless - pretending as if it knew nothing about prancing in the air. It now lay fashionably on the cool grass, the slender stem bent gracefully, its proud wrinkled face looking up at the sky, there was no sign of remorse - its tiny edges quivering slightly in the fall wind.
A dead leaf. The biggest I had ever seen in my life.
“I have lived a full life – a full summer” announced the leaf. I was wondering how the leaf was able to talk. Was the leaf really talking or was this my imagination playing tricks with me again?! I could not be sure so I decided to play along.
“What do you mean – you have lived a full life?” I asked.
“I have seen blue skies, rolling meadows, warm winds, a brilliant summer full of sunshine, I have seen the beautiful sights that are to be seen and heard the soothing music that is to be heard – even that rare silent music in my ears after every drop of rain” said the leaf.
“Blue skies…warm winds…silent music…so you think that is what is meant by living a full life…?” I prodded in jest.
“When I was young and green - I was in love with a grasshopper…it had big compound eyes and strong hind legs, it could have shred me to bits and gobbled me up if it wanted, bit it didn't...it let me live my full life...” confessed the leaf, now almost whispering.
“What…but that is strictly not allowed – you are from the plant kingdom, right…how could you have been in love with one from the animal kingdom? I asked incredulously.
“Love knows no boundaries. I once loved the shadow of a flower…but you won’t understand that. You are too human - too restricted with your senses” replied the leaf.
“You fell in love with a mere shadow of a flower?” I had to ask.
“Yes – you can fall in love with a shadow…I never saw the flower itself because it was on the other side but I used to wait for the long shadow of the flower to appear and dance in front of me as the sun came up each morning. Everything has a shadow…some are visible to the human eyes and some are not. Where there is a form of light – there are shadows. You pass by those dark glass panes, you look at your shadow and recognize yourself…you check your hair and your makeup! At that moment you and your shadow are one and the same” said the leaf.
“You must be joking – I have never heard such meaningless banter” I retorted getting nervous that this conversation was clearly headed in the wrong direction.
But the leaf carried on: “One day you will decay and decompose just like me. First the carrion flies will come and lay their eggs inside your nose, mouth and ears. Then the bacteria shall take over leading to putrefaction. Then your skin will rupture and decay. The larvae of flies shall consume your soft tissues. Only your bones shall remain. Then mice and rodents will gnaw on your bones to get the calcium...”.
“I clearly don’t follow what you are saying. This is too heavy for me. I should never have listened to your nonsense…I am so sorry for this dark conversation” I cried aloud in great frustration.
The leaf quietly said “What are you complaining about – be grateful…be thankful…I am already dead but you are still alive! Enjoy every moment – while it lasts!”
I was still shaking my head when the leaf flew in the wind and disappeared. It was a rough moment to reckon with but precious nevertheless.
I thought you would want to see a moral of the blog so here it is:
Happy living each moment of life – and a very happy thanksgiving to all!
“The story is good, but the video is bad, I wonder how a duck can have a tail like a porcupine..?” asked Kris. He was an eight year old kid visiting us with his parents for the weekend.
I had played a cartoon video for him. It was based on Sukumar Ray’s “literary nonsense” story. When I was a kid I enjoyed reading Sukumar Ray’s stories. They were as much fun as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Now kids could watch them in animation with sub-titles - but I guess it is not the same thing as reading a book and imagining things by oneself.
Kris said he was getting bored.
“Why don’t you do some painting…” I suggested to Kris. He gladly picked up the paint brush. We were now seated on our deck overlooking the creek and Kris started painting the view of the woods.
As I sat sipping some Darjeeling tea, I thought to myself - What if such a strange looking duck with a tail like a porcupine did exist somewhere?
Maybe we just haven’t seen it yet. Maybe.
A quick look at some ornithological websites revealed that there were forty-six recorded species of ducks, geese and swans in the state of New Jersey alone.
They all seem to share some common characteristics. Feathers that can shed water easily. Webbed feet for both water and land. Beaks of varying colors ranging from bright red to solid black.
On the internet I found a species that was called the “wood duck” and I was amazed by how colorful it was and how it mimicked its surrounding colors for a camouflage. Even a very creative person would find it difficult to imagine its combination of colors. The “long-tailed duck” is the only one I could find that came closest to having a tail that looks like the quill of a porcupine.
Well, it seems Sukumar Ray’s creativity was certainly out of this world!
And who would have imagined there are so many species of ducks and waterfowl?
There is of course Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. But apparently he has many critics. And not just religious groups. Many scientists think there is little evidence of how a new species emerges.
I glanced at what Kris had painted. It looked a lot like a “wood duck” sitting on the banks of the creek. I was quite puzzled. How did Kris know about this species of ducks?
Was this his active imagination? How could this be a co-incidence that I was just now looking at a picture of one on the internet?
I showed Kris’ painting to all and they were equally amazed.
“Kris – where did you see this duck?” I asked him.
‘I have seen one earlier” he replied nonchalantly.
“But where?” I persisted.
“A long time ago – when I was a lot bigger! I used to study in a high school called Rock and next to that was a Sidebrook park where I saw this duck” he replied confidently.
“Kris – how could you have been in high school in the past, you are only eight years old!” we exclaimed in unison.
“Yes I know – but last time I drowned in a lake and died. I saw this duck just before I drowned” he said without a trace of emotion.
The room was quiet. We could not fathom what was happening. Kris was an eight year old after all. He could well be imagining things.
Several days after Kris and his parents had left, while searching news that was eight years old, I found a news clip that reported that a high school student had drowned while swimming in a lake near Roxbury High School next to Brookside Park.