Categories
Personal

#BheemaStrong

A Short Story

Illustrations by Jayashree Krishnan

 “Your son has eosinophilia, Vasantha Ma,” Dr G declared. “He should avoid dusty places. He needs to get a little stronger. I’ll give him a syrup that should help with the wheezing,” he continued. “Don’t worry,” he assured Venu’s mother.

As she left the clinic, Venu’s mother was concerned. She and Venu’s father had spent a few sleepless nights tending to Venu’s wheezing. However, Venu now felt special. He had a fancy sounding condition that he could brag to his friends.

Venu’s father suggested that he bite on a handkerchief when wheezing symptoms started. Venu was puzzled at first but decided to give that a try. The syrup worked for a few days as Venu was able to go to sleep faster. The kerchief trick didn’t work for him and his mother didn’t want to deal with the “ecchal” kerchief next morning.

Somehow, word reached Venu’s family that raw eggs worked well for eosinophilia. After some back and forth with the hut dweller and poultry keeper Ramaswami across the street, it was arranged.  Ramaswami would deliver an egg every morning at 6:15 am. Venu would need to break it open and eat it raw. 

A small crowd had gathered to watch the grand first day event. Venu’s sister Kamala, his brother Renga, his mother, Ramaswami and his son Rangesh egged Venu on as the egg was broken and he swallowed it’s contents whole. It was a gross taste and Venu just managed to avoid throwing up on everyone. This spectacle continued for a few days. But Venu couldn’t stomach it anymore. He rebelled and the whole idea was shelved.

It was just a few days to go for the annual Chitrai Ther (“Chariot”) festival in Srirangam. The town was abuzz with preparations. White disinfectant powder was sprayed everywhere, vendor stalls kept popping up. Police outposts were installed and traffic diversions put in place. Venu was especially excited for this festival. Now that he was an older boy, he could venture out into areas that were prohibited earlier by his parents and others. He was especially keen to get to the back of the chariot to see the big youth climb on huge logs and ride it down. The logs were used to get the chariot rolling from a stationary position. It was like a lever, Venu made a connection from his Physics class. Venu was also keen to get a taste of the Bheema Pushti Halwa. He was hopeful that it would provide him strength to cure his eosinophilia. “Take that, you stinking eggs,” he said to himself.

Venu managed to get 1 Rupee from his mother to spend. He budgeted 25 paise for Coconut water, 25 paise for Jack fruit and 50 paise for the Halwa. It was going to be an awesome day, he thought. 

Venu sneaked out of home when everyone else was busy. His sister wanted to go with him but he found an excuse to leave her behind. As he neared his grandparent’s home, he greeted them. His thatha asked him to be careful in the crowds. Shouts of “Govindo, Govindo”  filled the air. The Ther was rumbling proudly as hordes of people pulled the huge jute ropes onwards. The Ther was draped in bright colours and he could spot the Bhattars standing next to the Lord. It must be so thrilling to be so high up and being pulled by thousands of people, he thought. 

As he tentatively approached the back of the Ther, Venu was awestruck by the scene. Those logs seemed so much bigger than he had imagined. He really wanted to ride up one of the logs but couldn’t gather much courage. When it was on the ground and the big youth took a break, he climbed up on one of them and felt mighty thrilled. 

Chitrai Ther

Now, it was time to find the Bheema Pushti halwa stall. The previous year, he had seen it near the Raja Gopuram, so he walked towards it through the difficult crowds. After some time trying to locate it, he asked a man “Sir, have you seen the Bheema Pushti halwa stall? I can’t seem to find it.”  The man replied immediately with a knowing smile “oh boy, I just saw him near the Gandhi statue. He was very busy. Shall I take you there? I am going that way only.” Venu thought for a moment and realizing the challenge of the crowds said “ok sir, please take me there”. “Follow me, keep close” said the man. As they walked, there were Police announcements every few minutes asking people to exercise caution against pickpockets and to keep their children in tow at all times.

The smell of the halwa was quite captivating. There was a short line and Venu debated spending 75 paise or 50 paise for the Halwa. He could always get jackfruit later, he thought. 

Strong Halwa

“Give me halwa for 50 paise,” he said excitedly. In a flash the halwa was in his hand and he started tasting it. After he had finished eating, he noticed the man that had helped him still there. Venu shouted “Thanks Sir. This halwa is very good.” The man came closer and said “There is another stall near Devi Talkies and his halwa is even better. We can go check it out if you want”  Since it was on his way home, Venu accepted and started walking with the man.

As they approached Devi Talkies, the man asked Venu where he lived. Venu told him about Periyar Nagar and the man remarked that it’s a nice colony. “Why don’t we take the bus so you can walk less?,” the man said. Venu declined and now could feel the sudden grip of the man on his wrist. He tried to free himself but couldn’t manage it. The man dragged him closer to the bus and pressured him to climb the steps. Venu was distressed and too paralyzed to scream. He had a sudden flash of Shivaji as the hero in a film he had seen recently. With a mix of cunning and bravery, “Veera Shivaji” had outwitted the British. 

“Veera Shivaji,” screamed Venu at the top of his voice and bit into the man’s wrist. The man recoiled in pain and let go of Venu’s hands. In a flash, Venu got free and ran away from the bus. The man tried to pursue but on seeing the throngs of people looking at him, hesitated and walked away. Venu ran and hid behind Devi Talkies.

Once the coast was clear, Venu made his way as fast as possible to his home.

“That Bheema Pushti halwa was very good, Amma,” he declared in an excited voice. “Next year, can you give me 2 Rupees please for Ther?,” Venu implored.

The End

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Categories
Personal

The Savior

A short Story

Illustrations by Jayashree Krishnan

It was a hot and muggy Saturday afternoon. Venu was in a bad mood as he got back home after half a day of school. Saturday school was not his favorite thing. 

As he threw his bag down on the floor and looked for something to eat, he had an idea. How about going to the river to hang out and swim? The water must be cool and it would feel good in this hot weather, he wondered. After a few days of heavy rain, the sun was hot on blazing that day.

“Anna!”, Venu shouted to his older brother Renga who was busy tending to his stamp collection. “I’m going to the river to take a dip. Do you want to come? It’s so hot.” he said.

“Venu, wait. It will take me another ten minutes to arrange the CCCP stamps. Don’t go by yourself,” said Renga.  

Venu had already discarded his school uniform, changed to regular shorts, and started running down the steps at breakneck speed as he heard Renga. In the distraction, he almost crashed his face on the stone column, abutting the steps. Doing a double-take, he swung around, balanced himself, and strolled toward the gate as if nothing had happened. 

“Come on Anna.” Venu pestered, standing by the gate. But Renga was not easily distracted from his philately collection. 

The Thirumanjana Kaveri (TK), as it is called, is a meandering tributary of its mother, the Kaveri.  It is said that the water for the daily Holy Bath for Lord Ranganatha is collected from this tributary. The TK itself had multiple personalities and reflected the seasons. Venu was keenly aware of its idiosyncrasies, as it flowed behind the embankment of huts that lined Varadachari street. In most places, the river had only a mud wall that washed away after each flood.  

Roosters

As he dashed into the narrow path by the hut that led to the river, a gaggle of roosters scattered and disturbed the afternoon quiet. Ramaswami, the hut dweller, made some noises, annoyed that someone had disturbed his inebriated state. He was a thatched roof builder but spent a lot of time on the floor sloshed. But, he was harmless. Running down this path was one of Venu’s favorite things to do. If he ran fast enough, he could gain enough momentum to splash directly into the river. It was a thrill, but he rarely did as it was quite risky. Today, Venu took it slow and decided to climb onto the branches of the mango tree beside the river. The branches extended a little bit into the river and were at just the right height to dive from. As he waited for Renga to join him, Venu relaxed in the shade of the mango tree.

On the Mango tree

He could hear Renga coming down the path. To show off, Venu shouted “Annaaa, see me jump” as he dove into the cool water from the mango tree. 

Diving into the TK

Something felt different. Usually, Venu would emerge out of the dive and crack a big smile out of happiness. This time, he felt  something heavy pull him under. He tried to kick himself free but didn’t feel strong enough to pry loose from whatever he thought was holding him down. Little did Venu know that an eddy had formed and was trying to suck him in. Thankfully, it was not big enough to hold him down for long.

In a flash, Venu found himself in the middle of the fast-flowing river. The current was quite strong midstream and Venu found himself helpless and swept away. It had pushed him from the left bank right into the middle of the river.

Tough situation

Renga had just reached the bank when he heard Venu shout “Anna, help, help!”. Reacting quickly, he judged that it was impossible for him to swim and reach Venu. He started running away from the bank. It seemed like he had a contrarian plan.

Venu looked up and noticed fast-moving branches of trees on the opposite bank. As the sunlight filtered through the branches, he had this easy, calm feeling. He saw a pair of horses pulling a chariot toward the sun. The charioteer seemed to beckon to him as if to say ” What are you doing there? Come take this ride with me”. A smile appeared on Venu’s face and he made a motion of reaching out his hand to grab onto the chariot. The chariot seemed just out of reach every time he thought he had touched it. 

“Venuuuuu”, shouted a voice from afar. Venu instantly recognized that as Renga. He quickly flailed and pivoted to the direction of the sound. The current was still pushing him rapidly downstream. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see his brother Renga making wild motions. Venu could hear Renga shout, “Venu, kick left, kick left, kick left, steer left!”. Venu bobbed his head out of the water and saw Renga on the downstream bank directing him toward it. Now he understood why Renga ran away from him when the current sucked him in. 

Venu tried real hard to get his legs and arms moving again. The current was merciless. It was just doing its job. He tried to focus on what Renga was asking him to do. He was upset that he had gotten into a fight with Renga the previous day, but he was glad that Renga was there now.

“Rengaaa! I’m trying. I will reach you,” he shouted as he desperately gave all his strength to kick and steer left. He made some progress. He could hear Renga’s words of encouragement as he got his hands out of the water and steered himself closer to the bank.

The current momentarily eased and Venu got a brief respite. Another few kicks and he estimated that he would be safer. As he gasped up and kicked, Venu felt a big tug on his left hand. Someone was pulling him. “Hold on Venu, hold on,” shouted Renga, as both of them crashed onto the shore.

Safety

Venu was safe now. He hugged his brother like there was no tomorrow.

The End

Categories
Health Running

Top 10 Reasons to Run

10. You can show off and publish a top 10 list with a map of a 10 mile run

9. Fresh Air is best disinfectant

8. You word drop Marathon in a gathering, all heads instantly turn to you

7. Many members of the opposite sex are also running

6. You will have an edge against street dogs in India

5. You have had it with purse and chain snatchers

4. It’s super cheap

3. Humans have been running since we existed on this planet. Yay us!

2. You can run in any season if you are sufficiently crazy

1. Never miss a bus or train or plane (my recurring nightmare, so #1)

YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) on the order of this list.

Categories
People Personal

Around the Block

A Short Story

Venu, a 9 year old boy had an idyllic life. He lived in a large corner house with an expansive garden. Most of the time, he could be found outside playing with his friends or climbing the easily accessible large Mango tree. It’s branches provided a sheltered space to play pretend hero games. A few falls and scrapes here and there were quickly forgotten with the excitement of daily play. In the big open space in his garden, he played cricket, gilli dhanda, marbles and pambaram. Venu was a happy boy. 

Venu’s house was on a street on the banks of the Thirumanjana Kaveri, a tributary of the Kaveri river. Not quite on the banks, but a road separated it from the huts that lined the banks. When the river was full, it was another perfect play area for Venu and his friends. To get to the river, Venu had to make his way through the huts and made friends with the children of the hut dwellers. It was a happy community despite the economic division between concrete and hut dwellers. 

The hut dwellers were day laborers, fishermen, construction workers, goat keepers and more. Venu was thick friends with many of the kids in his neighborhood. Together with many of his peers that lived in concrete houses, they would play games during school breaks. Many of the games happened in Venu’s backyard.

Venu’s thatha (grandfather) lived about half an hour away. Thatha would ride his bicycle to see his daughter and chat with her everyday. He would bring a small bag of vegetables and fruits that he picked on the way from his house to Venu’s. It was a good 30 minute bicycle ride amidst a sea of people. Venu loved his thatha for that and longed to ride a bicycle himself. 

Venu’s older brother had learnt how to ride a bicycle sometime ago. Venu had watched him with excitement and was quite impatient to get on a bicycle himself. However, no one came forward to teach him as they thought he was still too young. He was also seen as one prone to injuries and no one wanted to take a chance.  

He begged and pleaded with many of his older friends to have a turn on their bicycle. He tried to trade cricket batting chances for bicycle rides. His friend Murali graciously offered his bike for half an hour one day and Venu earnestly started the first of the 3 step process. To learn how to bike, a lad had to follow the 3 step process. The first step was the monkey pedal, the second step was the bar straddle and the 3rd step was to sit in the seat. To attain the 3rd step one would have to physically grow up so one could round the pedal with their feet.

When Venu was a boy,  they didn’t make and sell many junior bicycles. As Venu sees it now, kids go straight to sitting in the seat model and there is no looking back.  “So much easier, but much less fun”, he says.

The monkey pedal was a convoluted and risky maneuver. The left hand grabbed the left handlebar and the right hand reached over to grab the right one. One steps on the left pedal with their left leg and jiggers it back and forth in a half circle so the bicycle starts moving. Once it attains motion, the right leg quickly snaps over to the right pedal under the triangular frame. Then, it was a process of balancing and risk taking to be able to do just half circular motions or full ones. Graduating to a full circular motion on the pedals usually took weeks and weeks of practice. At the same time the handlebars have to be held steady so the bicycle could be steered correctly. 

Venu’s thatha parked and fastidiously locked his bicycle daily.  He was very possessive about his bicycle. Venu pleaded with his thatha “thatha, thatha can I please take your bike for just 5 minutes. I won’t take it far”. His thatha would say “No Venu, it’s too big for you. Here are some ripe guavas instead”. Sometimes it was a fair trade and Venu would run back into the garden biting into a juicy guava.

This went on for a few weeks. However, Venu constantly itched to take his thatha’s bicycle for a spin. On one fine morning, just as thatha was parking his bicycle. Venu greeted him and distracted him with some gibberish. In the ensuing distraction, thatha forgot to lock his bicycle and went inside to chat with his daughter.  Venu swung into action.

In the same street, there lived Krishna Iyengar. He was a vadhiyar and performed many religious ceremonies for families. Krishna Iyengar also served as Venu’s family’s vadhiyar. Venu liked the portly man very much as he was very soft spoken and didn’t constantly keep telling kids what not to do.

Gingerly opening the front gate and pushing the bicycle onto the road was no easy task. Once there, it was a quick one, two, three, four on the left foot and then a hop through the gap onto the right pedal and Venu was off. Venu was giddy with excitement and also nervous with fear. It was 8:30 in the morning and he was supposed to start getting ready for school. He thought everyone in the street was looking at him when in reality people just went on about their daily life. In no time, he took the first left turn and breathed a sigh of relief as he entered a low traffic street. His legs felt smooth and he had a good control of the handlebars. He felt good. 

The second left turn came up. This was a four way crossing and if he navigated the left turn smoothly, Venu could feel calmer. He spied his mother’s close friend waving at him and giving him a big smile. Though Venu liked her, it was not a time for politeness. He had to turn left.

Thankfully, he did. Now, Venu was coasting. With his heart beating fast, Venu looked forward to the long straight road before the next left turn. He saw many of his school friends already walking to school. His friend Viji waved to Venu from his veranda and egged him on. “Go Venu Go, Dei super da” he said.  Not wanting to lose focus, Venu had no choice but to ignore him. Later on that evening during Cricket, Venu thanked Viji for his encouragement and proceeded to tell him the whole story.

The 3rd left turn was coming up shortly. The house across this intersection had always been a mystery for Venu and his friends. It had high fences with bushes covering it. The owner of this house was also not cooperative in returning cricket balls that were hit into his yard. Venu handled the third turn with ease. He spotted SK, a friend of his brother waving to him. “Venu, great da” he said. Venu was thrilled because there was a rumour that SK had a girlfriend. 

The next left turn was going to be tricky. The road was in bad condition with many potholes. Roosters and goats took up half the road. The hut dwellers also encroached on it and many were still asleep. What the heck did they do at night anyway, that they are not awake now, wondered Venu. It was a tightrope walk for Venu, but he was focused. He made the left turn and now he felt he was in the home stretch.

“I’m going to tell your thatha”, screamed Pitchai from his veranda as he looked at Venu gingerly on his bicycle. Pitchai, a friend of Venu’s uncle lived a few doors from Krishna Iyengar. “What a party pooper”, Venu thought.

Venu got slightly distracted. Looking forward, he saw Krishna Iyengar comfortably ensconced in his easy chair. 

After his morning rounds, Krishna Iyengar liked to bring out an easy chair and relax on it in the open space in front of his house. Venu always questioned the wisdom of doing so as there was so much noise from sheep, people and other things on the road. Venu had wanted to ask Krishna Iyengar about this for a while but never really gathered the courage to do so.

Just then a rooster decided to scurry across the street. Venu got rattled a bit. His legs started feeling like lead now. He started breathing a little harder. 

Illustration by Jayashree Krishnan

What was he supposed to do? A lot of forces were resisting him. In a bid to get away from the situation, Venu pedaled a little harder. 

In a flash, the world turned bad for Venu.

“Aiyo”, screamed Krishna Iyengar as Venu crashed onto the easy chair. The easy chair tumbled and Krishna Iyengar tumbled onto the ground out of control. The bicycle ended up on the road and Venu ended up on Krishna Iyengar. It was not a pretty sight. 

Within seconds, a small crowd had gathered around them. Pitchai ran toward the scene and started examining Venu and Krishna Iyengar. He helped steady both of them. He declared that neither of us had sustained any injuries. Krishna Iyengar’s portliness had helped cushion Venu’s fall and the easy chair had helped mitigate Krishna Iyengar’s tumble.  

Venu was breathless, but still apologized profusely. After surveying himself, Krishna Iyengar promptly dismissed the boy softly. “Good thing. I am not hurt”.  You go home now. Be careful”. “What a nice man”, wondered Venu.

Scanning himself, Venu could see a few scratches on his knees and elbows. Some grease marks lined his shins. Grabbing the bicycle, Venu started pedaling slowly back home.  

Thatha had still not finished talking to his daughter. The coast was clear to park the bicycle, run to the outside pipe, wash up and head into the kitchen.

“Venu!, it’s time to eat and go to school.”, said Venu’s mother.

“Okay Amma, here I am!”. Venu said.

Categories
Technology Travel

Autonomous Vehicles

We are living in the dawn of the age of autonomous driving. It’s still awhile before a vehicle capable of driving by itself under all conditions begins to take the road. That would be Level 5 automation. At Level 4 you get High Automation, where the vehicle is capable of all driving functions under certain conditions. In Level 4 and 5, the driver may have the option to control the vehicle. Level 3 is conditional automation, wherein a driver is a necessity, but not required to monitor the environment. The driver must be ready to take control of the vehicle at all times with notice. Level 2 is partial automation, where functions like steering and braking is automated but the driver must be engaged with the driving task and monitor the environment at all times. We are somewhere between Level 2 and Level 3 now.

Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) bring us safety. Imagine the number of accidents that can be prevented that happen now due to human error. That would be a huge win. AVs enable people of disability to lead a fuller life. AVs would improve productivity by enabling drivers to work or do something else useful while on the road. Family summer trips could be much more fun.

On the flip side, AVs won’t be accepted until they are as safe as human drivers. Humans have become extremely good drivers and vehicles are safer than ever. The technology to develop AVs is incredibly expensive. On top of it, a connected car can be hacked.

Tesla’s Elon Musk said on April 22 2019 – “Next year for sure, we will have over 1 million robotaxis on the road”. We are past April 2019 but the roads are quiet, for a different reason.

Technology wise bad weather, uneven terrain and difficulty of identifying and anticipating movement of moving objects remain a significant hurdle. Lots of legal and regulatory standards remain to be crafted. Insurance liability is one key hurdle. How does a AV decide when confronted with the decision of hitting a pedestrian vs crashing itself and potentially injuring it’s occupants? Consumer distrust and cyber security fears round up the challenges.

How does an AV see and navigate the world around it? There are a number of technologies:-

  1. LiDAR – Light Detection and Ranging. It fires millions of laser light pulses per second and uses the reflection to scan surroundings and create high resolution 3D maps of the vehicle’s surroundings. It’s able to detect if an object is a bicycle or a motorcycle or if a pedestrian is facing forward or backward. The drawback is that it’s very expensive and doesn’t work well in bad weather.
  2. Cameras – Used for traffic sign recognition, side and rear surround view, parking assistance. It provides highest resolution images and can do wide angle and narrower view of what’s ahead. Again, weather can be a factor in proper functioning.
  3. Radar – It sends out radio waves that bounce off distant surfaces. Most common uses include adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, blind spot detection, parking assistance, collision avoidance and obstacle detection. Radar is proven for seeing hundreds of yards out and detect object size/speed. However, it can’t see detail and therefore no able to detect identity of objects.

Another cool aspect of AV is the development of V2X – Vehicle to Everything. This means passing of information to any entity / object that may affect the vehicle. A vehicle may communicate with another vehicle or communicate with infrastructure (street lights, buildings, pedestrians etc). All these scenarios are likely to come alive with 5G technology. In reality, this will take a long time.

An AV is really a data center on wheels. It represents the truest form of computing at the edge.

Fascinating developments in this area await us. I am really looking forward to a Level 5 AV hitting the road in 10 years. May the best technology win.