Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Road to Purandar, Part 1 - The Strange Case of the Missing Fort

The alarm goes off at 5:15 on the Sunday morning of the 25th of February, 2007. "What the hell?", you think. And then, "Ohhhhhhhhh. The trek!" You part the curtains and take a tentative look outside. It's all dark. You glance at the soft comfort of your bed highlighted just right in the darkness. You notice the outlines of that beloved thick blanket of yours waiting to envelop you in her warm, sweet embrace (phrases like these are the legacy of a childhood where I did not always pay heed to the adage, "Do not judge a book by its cover.")

"Screw the trek."
The Voice of Conscience pops up, "But what about Ashwin? He's driving all the way from Aundh."
"Screw him, too."
The Voice of Conscience has one last try, "But that camera you bought. You've been wanting to try it out. That's why you set that alarm for this god-forsaken hour, anyway. Who cares about Ashwin? I began with him just to start the conversation. Think about the pictures you'll be able to take. Think of Bunuel, Lynch, Hitchcock, the Coens, De Palma. They must all have started this way."
"They woke up in the dead of the night to climb up a piece of rock?"
"Yes. Listen, I'm the Voice of Conscience. Would I lie?"
"Oh, all right."

So began the day. We were scheduled to start by 5:45 AM. This meant that Ashwin reached my place by 6:30, or so, and off we went. I guess I should start off with a description of the scenic route and everything. Well, to start off with, it wasn't particularly scenic - not until the last leg of the drive, anyway.

It was just some road that went through Hadapsar, and reached Saswad. From Saswad we took a series of turns that somehow miraculously got us on the road to Narayanpur (the village at the base of Purandar). On the way, we stopped at a tea-shop, and - to everyone's immense astonishment - ordered some tea. While the tea was being prepared, I went out to take some snaps of a tree that looked really promising from an angle close to the ground. After I was done with the snaps, I discovered that Ashwin had decided that since I was messing around lying flat on the ground, he might as well drink my tea, too. We continued on our way.

The road so far had been relatively good, and we soon came to a board that claimed to point travellers to 2 destinations - Purandar, and some other place that escapes my mind. According to the board, we were to take a road to the left of the highway to go to Purandar. However, according to the other arrow on the very same board, the other place lay somewhere near the core of the earth. Either that, or we don't know how to read boards. It was at this juncture, when confusion ruled our minds, that we saw a bus full of school children on the road to the left (had this been a movie, there would've been a long lingering shot of the bus, and some scary music playing in the background; you know, those "ominous portents" thingies - more on this later). We asked one of the teachers (or, according to Ashwin, parents; it seemed to me, though, that if so few parents can have so many kids, the family-planning messages really aren't getting across at all) who said, yes, this is the road to Purandar.

The road, from this point on, was pretty bad. It was just a few pieces of tar connecting potholes. But believe you me, compared to the road that wound up the hills towards Purandar fort, this was the equivalent of the autobahns. On reaching Narayanpur village, we debated on whether to trek up, or to drive. We settled on driving, as we also wanted to see a temple that was about an hour's trek from the fort itself. This was our first trek, and we did not want to over exert ourselves. Besides, we didn't have any food.

You wouldn't believe it, but Ashwin stays with his family, and they have a proper kitchen and everything, and the best he could come up with in the way of snacks was some bread, and some chips, which he said could be put in between the bread to make a sandwich. The first I ever heard of a potato-chip sandwich. And then there was the matter of water. He'd promised to get water, and all he got was about 1 litre, and a bottle of fruit juice, or something. No glasses even. On querying, all I got was a, "Well, I must have left the glasses at home - along with the plates, forks and the rest of the dinner set." No apologetic tone of the voice, either.

Anyway, that set us on that road-from-hell to Purandar. Apparently, somebody didn't want to tar that road. Not only that, he seems to have figured that since he was leaving it untarred, he might as well leave on it, by the millions, stones the size of the iceberg that sank Titanic - to finish the task, you know, and ensure the road is completely unusable. Up we went, until a place where a landslide blocked the road. We parked the car there and went up the rest of the way on foot. On the way, we passed the group of kids whose bus we had overtaken. They were sitting on the side of the road, and as we passed them, we thought, "Leaving these pests behind is a good idea. There's nothing that puts a damper on a nice, quiet nature trip as having a bunch of lousy kids around you." We came up against a gate marked "Army Land". We were a little hesitant about going in, but remembered a blog that said that though it was marked as such, it was fine to go in by foot. Still, cautious we were, as we didn't want to spend the rest of the weekend explaining to some colonel, "But that blog said..."

We passed a little pond, and then came upon the ruins of a church or something, and were stunned by the sight of those kids infesting the building - we had not seen them pass us. It turned out that there was a little shortcut that we had not seen. This would be the story of our trek.

We hung around taking "The Searchers" style photos hoping the kids would carry on. Leaving them behind proving unfeasible, we thought we'd let them leave us behind. This, they didn't do for quite a while, but our patience did pay off eventually. We hung around a bit more, giving the kids a healthy start. Fate would now play a cruel trick on us. We reached a fork in the road, with the statue of a chap with two swords, in the middle.

The road on the right was blocked (deliberately) by rocks. The left one wasn't. It had what looked like another old church, and a sign about a canteen down that road. Now, most of you folks reading this would probably reason that the road on the right was blocked for a good reason, and take the one on the left. Good reasoning, it would be, too. But the thing was, the road on the right had the enormous advantage of not having any blasted kids. The road on the left was chockful of them, and so the road on the right it was.

We walked up it, hoping to eventually reach the fort, which we could see way above and to the right of us. We tried a few dirt tracks that seemed to lead more directly to the fort, but gave them all up after meeting with several hardships on them. We reasoned that if somebody had built a nice tarred road, it would be a crime to leave it for some dirt trails. Besides, it was logical that they would build the nice tarred road for a reason, and that reason would be a fort at the end of it.

We finally reached the end of the road. There was another statue there, and not much else. We saw a family lunching there. The conversation went as follows:-

"Excuse us, but there's supposed to be a fort around here somewhere. Do you know where it is?"
"You're on it."
"What? This is a fort?"

A bit flummoxed, we were. Granted, we're not architectural experts, but WordWeb defines a fort as "a fortified defensive structure". And if there was any structure, defensive or otherwise - apart from a hall nearby - we couldn't see it.

"Umm, isn't there anything else around here? Some walls, I mean. Shouldn't a fort have some?"
"There's a map inside that hall over there."

And on this cliff hanger, I will leave you guys. Where is this mysterious fort? Will the map in the hall lead our young heroes to the fort? Any chance of the charming hunks hooking up with some hot babes on the way, Indiana Jones style? What other treasures could the map lead them to? Or does it merely hold nameless terrors that will test the mettle of the brave adventurers to the utmost? Stay tuned, same time, next week - or whatever - to find out the exciting answers to these questions!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Movie Turn-Ons, Part 2 (Film-Noir Dialogue)

I was aware of the parodies of film noir before I ever heard of the genre that owes its origins to the hardboiled fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I first heard of them in a review for "Pulp Fiction" that said the movie was tinted by their echoes. Given how much I loved it, I simply had to find out more about these two guys. Now I have a collection of books on detectives tracking down dames with eyes the colour of "shadows on polished silver" (grey, in case you were wondering), and men "neither tarnished nor afraid", who walk the "mean streets".

Crackling with wit and dripping with atmosphere, their tales were of world-weary men who brought their own strange code of ethics to a dark world of unforgettable characters. The stories were vicious, bloody and ironic - where lines got so blurred that villains were sometimes more sympathetic than heroes; where, in fact, such labels often had no meaning (maybe this is more true for Hammett than Chandler). In "Red Harvest", for instance, it is the "villains" who display more heart and more humanity than the cold-blooded killing machine that is the detective, the nameless Continental Op. These were no morality plays.

For all that, they were also very affecting, for here were characters, on both sides of the divide, I actually cared for. (As Chandler put it, "Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.") Then there are those encounters, those passages, that are such perfect mood pieces that long after I've forgotten who was murdered, or who the culprit was, the flavour lingers. These were no puzzles dressed up as stories, or a meticulous collection of mysteries and clues, all building up to a huge pay-off in the last page. Hell, sometimes even the author had no idea who did what (Chandler, more than Hammett). A world apart from the antiseptic whodunnits that I'd read previously.

Which brings me to my movie turn-on. Sure, black-and-white photography of Humphrey Bogart walking down dark, rain-drenched streets alone, in trench coat and hat, is a thrill like no other. But some other time, maybe. For now, it's noir dialogue. Snappy, double-entendre-laced exchanges at the pace of machine-gun fire. So outrageously over-the-top that they're more often cringe-worthy than anything else. But when they do get it right, there's nothing quite like it.

"Double Indemnity", co-written by Chandler, was made at a time when the Hays Code was in effect. I suppose the right thing to do is tut-tut at this censorship that must've neutered so many great movies. But it's hard not to take some perverse pleasure that Hollywood, too, had to go through a variation of the hypocrisy that the Indian establishment practises. So what if generations of Indians had to put up with gushing fountains and blooming flowers after a trying 3 hours of aggravatingly-idealistic boy wooing irritatingly-pious girl? Why, even the great Hitchcock had to be happy with trains speeding into tunnels! And what's more? The fact that the code was there, adds to the fun of seeing this oh-so-innocent insurance sales pitch, for instance, dance circles around it. Of course, reading it here is only half the thing. Watching it, elevates it to a whole new plane.

She: You handle just automobile insurance or all kinds?
He : All kinds: fire, earthquake, theft, public liability, group insurance, industrial stuff and so on, right on down the line.
She: (She sits back down and crosses her legs) Accident insurance?
He : Accident insurance? Sure, Mrs. Dietrichson. (Pause) Wish you'd tell me what's engraved on that anklet.
She: Just my name.
He : As for instance?
She: Phyllis.
He : Phyllis, huh? I think I like that.
She: But you're not sure?
He : Oh, have to drive it around the block a coupla times...
She: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening around 8:30. He'll be in then.
He : Who?
She: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?
He : Yeah, I was, but... I'm sorta getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
She: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr Neff. 45 miles an hour.
He : How fast was I going, officer?
She: I'd say around 90.
He : Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
She: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
He : Suppose it doesn't take.
She: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
He : Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
She: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
He : That tears it. (Pause) 8:30 tomorrow evening, then.
She: That's what I suggested.
He : Will you be here, too?
She: I guess so, I usually am.
He : Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
She: I wonder if I know what you mean.
He : I wonder if you wonder.

That was just a sample. From the evocative narration of our hero (a man confessing to murdering for... well... two very special reasons), to how the little man in the stomach is indispensable when it comes to detecting insurance fraud and dodgy brides, to how converting husbands to a little hard cash can smell like honeysuckle and how your footsteps sound afterward, to how you can mistake people for being smarter than the rest when all they are is a little bit taller, to some startling insight on suicide statistics (did you know that not one person has ever attempted suicide by jumping off the back of a moving train?), the dialogue is witty, cynical, nasty, touching too at times, totally unrealistic (it seems so, at least; however, if this is how people really talk in Los Angeles, my places-to-visit list needs updating), has more outrageous similes than you can count... and is eminently quotable.

In fact, you could just switch off the TV (if you were blind, that is, and extraordinary photography - or Barbara Stanwyck, for the matter - does nothing for you), and just listen to the movie. Ah, that's my cue. I just contradicted myself. My post's going downhill. I'm all washed up. You bet I'll get out of here, baby. I'll get out of here but quick.