Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Movie Buff

It’s impossible to gloss over the irrationality behind some of the ludicrous choices we made those days. I think cramming for the IIT Joint Entrance Exam had something to do with this, and here’s my conjecture.

When you start stuffing your 16-year old, 1,300 cc brain with trifles like Lagrange's mean value theorem, L’Hospital’s rule, and Friedel-Crafts alkylation, something’s gotta give. Part of your medial temporal lobe, hitherto responsible for common sense and judgment, gets repurposed.

In a seminal study of this IITian impairment, the hippocampus responsible (among other things) for making you deftly avoid a pile of steaming cow-dung on the street was shown to instead get busy — at that exact moment — extracting the rank of a skew-symmetric matrix, despite frantic signals from a despairing olfactory bulb. Sadly, this turns out to be a zero-sum game that you can painfully verify when you feel the warm stickiness on your feet.

Going out to watch a late-night movie was one such irrational choice. Getting there was a painful voyage in itself. To top that, the movie usually stank, and the trip back at 2 or 3 in the morning was a fool’s errand.

The decision to go was usually made after dinner, in the false security of a brim stomach. You would first have to bike all the way to the gate before boarding a city bus down to Mount Road.  You could start by riding your own bike. Or you could try and borrow one from Chacko or Daraius.

Your bicycle was likely the standard-issue Hero or Atlas cycle that your Dad bought for you in your first year for 280 rupees, plus 40 for the carrier and mud-guard. On the sixth day, the chain would awaken and start to grate inside its guard with every turn, for the rest of its boisterous life.

Chacko and Daraius, meanwhile, had speedsters with large gear ratios that made Bonn Avenue swish past like the autobahn. Your best option was clear — just ask one of them and hope they give in. But once you got to the gate, you would still have to wait for the bus and I think it was 19S that did the trick to Devi Theater, where most of the late shows played.

In those days, Hollywood productions made it to India a year or two after their release in the US — by third class seamail service. We accepted that benefaction gladly and slugged it out to watch deeply memorable flicks like Poltergeist and Conan the Barbarian. The ordeal of making it to the movie almost always had me sleeping right through it; but all was not lost, for someone would recap the plot on the long ride back to the hostel.

Returning from the movie was the biggest adventure of it all. You could wait for one of the really late-night buses that got you back to the IIT gate, or you could hitch a ride on a lorry. The lorries usually carried cement or bricks and got you until Saidapet, where they turned right and headed towards the new construction sites around Meenambakam airport.

After you slipped the driver a couple of bucks, you were left with the small matter of a three kilometer walk to the IIT gate, and then a ride on your rusty bike for the remaining few.

All of this for Poltergeist? Just blame your two-timing hippocampus!

One of those return trips was decidedly memorable.

The movie had been short and we didn’t want to wait for one of the scheduled buses that wouldn’t arrive until much later. So we flagged down a lorry and hopped into the cabin, alongside the driver. Something was strangely amiss that night on that lorry.

Had we been looking, the clue would have been the faceless driver whose head was completely wrapped up in a turban, leaving small slits for his eyes. He rams in a gear and the lorry lurches forward, as we hold on. In less than one minute I am battling my own bile, rising up and flooding my throat. An overpowering stench smothers the cabin in an evil miasma. I turn around, expecting to see pigs frolicking in their own manure. But it was worse. We were in a garbage truck, hauling away the vilest stuff from the filthiest metropolis in India.

I sank low in my seat and looked across at my movie companion, Annie. He was at floor level.  His eyeballs were frozen and he wasn’t breathing. But this was not the time for lifesaving maneuvers, so I let it pass.

I tried to concentrate my mind on something, on nothing — on every damn thing — but this goddamn lorry and its cargo. If you wanted to demonstrate conquest of mind over matter, this would have been the time and place.

We literally hit the ground running at Saidapet and ground to a halt to take in deep breaths of the sweet night air. The walk back to the gate renewed our lease on life.

But what the Lord taketh away, the Lord giveth. On that fateful day, He wore down my olfactory bulb to a tiny point. Years later, this would come in handy as a new father.

For I could now change the soiled diapers on my infant daughter with a smile on my mouth, rather than a wrinkle on my nose.


  1. You could have given me mouth-to-mouth, but that's the one thing that would probably have smelt worse than that truck :-D

  2. You need to put this collection together and publish baby. Youre just getting better and better at it.

    You can title it Double SP or Taramani Tales or some such thing . Your next story should be about Joshi, Deaf Dhobs and 10 Downing.

  3. The movie I remember going for is Neighbours starring John Belushi and Dan Akroyd. I still dont know why the car rolled into the pond in the first ten minutes of the movie. I would like to ascribe my incomprehension to the pre-dolby, pre-stereo, rat scratched speakers, but I think it was just the American accent. Today most of my friends speak that way, and I still dont think I can understand what they are saying.

  4. Nice Curly. Yeah, late night movies were always an adventure. I know I went for many on the night before exams because I had no notes, no text book to study from, and had made arrangements for loaners that came available only after 2am.
    I'd suggest some writings on mess food (chappals on OAT night etc), it scarred me seriously to eat that way for 4 years.

  5. Nicely written. I don't think I ever made it to a late night movie in Madras :( but nevertheless have had many late-night adventures on the road to the main gate ... and not just on bicycles :)

  6. And, who is the "Anonymous" poster ??