Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Short Story: Down The Ski Slopes In Switzerland

As soon as Rashmi and I finalised our plans to tour Europe, I thought of Manjunath. However, when I told Rashmi that I planned to contact Manjunath, or Manja as we friends called him, and ask him for advice, I was greeted with stony silence. Rashmi has a habit of forming strong likes and dislikes with regard to all my friends after meeting them just once. I think Rashmi had met Manja twice before and thought he was pompous and irritating. I however had little choice since unfortunately Manja is the only friend I have who is extremely familiar with Europe. And so I emailed Manja and told him of our plans to visit England, France and Switzerland. I had a long list of questions. What was the best airline to travel to London, which hotels should we stay in, what places should we visit, what should we do while over etc.

If all of this gives you the impression that Manja lives in Europe, you are dead wrong. Manja lives in Delhi. We both went to St. Joseph’s in Bangalore, after which our paths diverged. Manja went to Delhi for his higher studies, while I never left Bangalore. And Manja continues to live in Delhi, indulging in a business which he describes to all and sundry as “import-export”. I’ve never really understood what Manja’s “import-export” means, except that it allows Manja to travel overseas, mainly to Europe, as often as he wants and, if his letters and emails are to be believed, lead a very luxurious lifestyle.

Manja replied to my email after a week’s delay. He was currently in Germany attending the Hanover trade fair. During the time we planned to be in Europe, he would be in Switzerland at a place called Interlaken. If during our time in Switzerland we happened to pass through Interlaken, which he was sure we would, we could meet up, he told me in his reply.

‘I don’t particularly want to meet Manja,’ Rashmi declared after reading Manja’s email. The travel advice Manja emailed me was so much in keeping with Manja’s character. Travel on a European Airline if you want to eat genuine European food in the air. Stay in Hotels ABC and XYZ and MNO if you want a comfortable stay. Manja must have guessed what we were planning to do for he added, in any event, and for God’s sake, don’t try to save a few francs or pence by staying in some third rate B&B – you’ll find so many of them on the internet. And finally avoid those Indian package tours which promise you Pooris in Paris and Indian company wherever you go. What’s the point of travelling to Europe if you want to eat Indian food and spend time with other Indians?

I saw the point which Manja was making, but Rashmi didn’t. Both Rashmi and I are vegetarians and from our limited experience know that western vegetarian food is the most tasteless thing in the world. Usually consisting of just boiled or steamed vegetables, bland and lacking even salt, there was no way we could survive on something like that for two weeks. What was the guarantee that Swiss Air’s or British Airways’ vegetarian option would not be bland and tasteless? Rashmi wanted to know. As for staying in Hotels ABC and XYZ and MNO, I soon found out that they were exorbitantly expensive. If I too were in the ‘export-import’ business like Manja, I might have been able to stay in those hotels. In any event, there was no guarantee that those posh hotels offered decent Indian food, if not good Kannanda ootta. No, we did not expect to get bissi belle bath in Bournemouth, and Bern, but we did want edible vegetarian food wherever we went.

To cut a long story short, we travelled by Jet Airways to London and spent a week in England and Scotland. The Eurostar took us from St. Pancras station to Paris and we spent a week in France, after which a cheap Easyjet flight took us to Geneva. After two days in Geneva and Laussanne, we made our way to Interlaken where Manja had told us we could find him.

Interlaken has two train stations, Manja had warned me in his email. Manja’s hotel, the Beau Rivage, was very close to Interlaken Ost. However, we got off at Interlaken West, the next stop, which was closer to the Oberland Chalet, where we were booked into. In the evening sunlight, the snow clad Alps dominated the skyline whichever direction we looked. A five minute walk along the main thoroughfare took us to the Oberland Chalet. We checked into our room, which was comfortable, but not luxurious, and took a short nap. It was totally dark when we woke up and made our way in the bitter winter cold to the Beau Rivage.

As soon as we entered the lobby of the Beau Rivage, Rashmi cribbed yet again, ‘why do we have to come here to see him? Why couldn’t he come to our hotel?’

’Aw! Come on! Don’t be petty,’ I told Rashmi. ‘Manja knows Switzerland like the back of his hand. He might tell us something useful.’

‘Just because he has more money and stays in a hotel that is more expensive, doesn’t mean we ought to …’

‘Drop it Rashmi,’ I said. There was hardly any time to say more as we got off the lift and reached Manja’s room. Manja looked as if he was getting ready to go out somewhere.

‘Srikanth! You son of a gun! You finally made it here,’ he said shaking me warmly by the hand. Rashmi got a polite smile. He then sat us down in his opulent room and made us recount our experiences in the last two weeks.

‘So, did you manage to find decent Oota in France?’

‘Not really,’ I admitted. ‘France is very beautiful and Paris even more so, but French food is not really suitable for vegetarians.’

‘They don’t seem to understand that vegetarians would not want to eat eggs or fish,’ Rashmi complained. ‘We could not find an Indian restaurant a couple of times and we had so much trouble eating at the French restaurant we went to.’

Manja laughed aloud. ‘When in Rome, live as the Romans do. That’s what I do,’ he told us patronisingly. ‘The Schnitzels here are worth dying for. Never mind, you’ll find the Shalimar on the other side of the road serving decent Indian food.’

‘Tell me, why did you decide to travel during winter?’

Rashmi and I looked at each other sheepishly. ‘We wanted to see some snow,’ I admitted. We had seen some snow in Scotland and in France, but not enough. Even in Geneva, there wasn’t much snow.

‘There hasn’t been much show this winter,’ Manja told us. ‘There was a fair amount of snow in December, but January and February have been devoid of flurries.’

I noticed a pair of large shiny boots in a corner of Manja’s room. ‘What are they?’ I asked Manja.

‘My ski boots,’ he told me with a smug smile. ‘Do you plan to do any skiing?’ he asked us.

‘I won’t mind giving it a try,’ I told him.

‘Neither would I,’ Rashmi said gaily.

‘How many days have you budgeted for Interlaken?’ he asked us.

‘Two days. But we need a day for the Jungfraujoch. That’s leaves another day for skiing. Can we ski here at Interlaken?’

‘No, you need to go to either Grundenwald or Murren for that. Go to one of these places, find a ski school, get a good instructor, hire the equipment – don’t buy it, and you are all set.’

‘How much will it cost?’ I asked.

‘Around seventy five francs per hour for an instructor. Around sixty francs a day for the ski boots and poles. Add fifteen francs if you haven’t got any waterproof trousers.’

And then Manja added, ‘since you are beginners, make sure you find a good instructor. There is more ice than snow on the ground. The chances of slipping and falling are very high.’ I had a feeling that maybe we wouldn’t do much skiing.

We decided that we would all go to the Shalimar for dinner. I was a little upset that Manja did not offer us the use of his skiing equipment. Over dinner I asked him, ‘are you skiing tomorrow?’

‘I am. Two of my business associates from Brazil are going to be around and I am planning to take them skiing. The rules are the same everywhere old chap! One needs to entertain and make friends to stay afloat in business! If they weren’t coming over, I could have taken you both with me to Grundenwald and shown you the ropes.’

I gave a wistful smile and opened the menu.

‘Something to drink sir?’ the South Asian waiter asked me. I think he was Pakistani, but I didn’t ask.

‘You should have some Feldschlösschen,’ Manja advised us. ‘That’s the local brew.’

‘I don’t drink,’ Rashmi told him upfront. I decided to have a pint of Feldschlösschen. It was the least I could do after the long lecture Manja gave us about trying the local cuisine.

‘Two pints of Feldschlösschen,’ Manja ordered.

‘A diet coke for me, Rashmi said.

‘Any starters?’ the waiter asked when he got us the drinks after five minutes.

‘No,’ I said. Rashmi shook her head. But Manja had other plans.

‘Let’s have some samosas,’ he suggested.

‘Why not? Let’s have some samosas,’ I concurred.

‘A plate of poppadams and samosas,’ Manja told the waiter.

‘Would you like to order the main course as well?’

Manja ordered a lamb madras, a chicken rogan josh and some salad to go with his rice.

‘The prawns here are very nice. You ought to try them,’ he told us.

‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ Rashmi replied.

‘I think I’ll have them. A plate of prawns. They are tiger prawns, aren’t they?’

Of course they were tiger prawns. I fumed a bit internally. If only Manja had ordered some vegetarian food, we could have shared it with him. One look at Rashmi’s face and I knew that she was also angry. But I knew Manja. He was not selfish, only thoughtless, though many people would not see much difference between the two.

I sipped the Feldschlösschen, which was quite nice. ‘I usually drink Fosters,’ I told Manja in case he thought I had never drunk foreign beer. ‘That’s an Australian beer,’ I added.

‘My dear chap, Fosters is marketed as an Australian beer. But nobody drinks it in Australia.’ You had to hand it to Manja for his ability to deflate a person.

Once we started to eat, things became fun. Manja regaled us with stories of his exploits. He worked hard and played even harder.

‘Do you know what the Englishman said on the twenty first of December?’

Rashmi and I looked at each other. No, we did not know. Then I asked, ‘isn’t that the winter solstice?’

‘Yes, but what did the Englishman say? He said, Ah! The shortest day in the year. And what did the Frenchie dude have to say?’

No, we did not know the answer.

‘The longest night in the year!’

Rashmi and I chuckled politely.

‘There’s this Belgian partnership I do business with. The people who run it are all Flemish, but most of their customers are Walloons in Brussels. You should see the contempt they have for the Walloons. It’s so funny.’

‘Who are Walloons?’ Rashmi wanted to know.

‘They are French speakers living in Belgium. You’ll find them in Brussels and in the southern part. The northern part, Flanders, is composed of Flemish speakers.’

‘I didn’t know there was a language called Flemish,’ I said.

‘It’s actually a dialect of Dutch.’

‘I see.’

‘And Dutch is actually a dialect of German.’

‘Seriously? I didn’t know that.’

‘It’s true, but don’t ever say that to the Dutch!’

We laughed a lot and even Rashmi enjoyed herself. There’s no substitute for a good friend when you are in a faraway land, I thought to myself.

After we had dessert, Manja called for the bill. It came to eighty five francs. If only Manja didn’t order so many meat dishes, I wouldn’t have to pay forty francs for dinner, I angrily thought as I picked up the bill. I waited for Manja to ask me how much the bill was for, but Manja gave me the sort of beaming look a proud father would give a son, when the son takes the father out after receiving his first pay check. I was shocked. I was trapped. I held the bill in my hand and could not put it down. I slowly fished out my wallet and took out my credit card. Until the waiter arrived with the device that took my pin number, I kept hoping that Manja would offer to chip in.

As we walked back to the Oberland Chalet, Rashmi turned towards me and asked me angrily, ‘are you happy now? If only we hadn’t gone to meet him, we could have saved at least fifty francs. If he has so much money, he could have paid for all three of us, couldn’t he?’

I did not dispute Rashmi’s logic. If Manja didn’t want to take us skiing, that was fine. But to order so many dishes which we could not share and make us pay for it all was … so disgusting.

‘Honey, I owe you one. This is my fault. I made an error in judgement,’ I told Rashmi not wanting to quarrel with her during our last week in Europe.

‘It’s not really your fault. I’m just angry with the situation.’ I wouldn’t want to say more other than that it took me two days of utmost charm and guile to get a smile back on Rashmi’s face. By that time we had spent a day at Jungfraujoch, covered Basel and reached Zurich. The next day we would take the train back to Geneva and catch an Easyjet flight to London, from where Jet Airways would fly us home. Rashmi and I had enjoyed our European tour a lot, but we were actually looking forward to being back in Bangalore. True, these days there are Indian restaurants all over the world, but these restaurants serve food which is tailored to the western palate. I guess it is as much authentic Indian as the food in my favourite Chinese joint on M.G.Road is authentic Chinese.

Rashmi and I bought tons of souvenirs for ourselves and gifts for our families and friends. We were deciding on a cuckoo clock at a shop in Zurich when Manja called up on my mobile phone. As usual, he came straight to the point.

‘Dude, I need your help. I’ve had an accident.’

I was immediately concerned. ‘What sort of accident?’ I asked.

‘A skiing accident.’

‘Are you alright?’ This made Rashmi curious and she pressed close to me so as to hear the conversation.

‘I’ve twisted my left ankle badly. Some bruises on my arms. Bedridden. But I’ll survive.’ Manja sounded like a martyr. I was irritated, but I could not hang up on a friend who just had an accident, even if I was paying through my nose for answering a call on my roaming Indian mobile.

‘Can you move about?’

‘No, I can’t. Listen, I need a favour.’

Tell me.’

‘Your train will pass through Interlaken when you travel to Geneva tomorrow, won’t it?’

‘I guess it will.’ Rashmi took a deep breath and waved her hand in front of my face before I could commit to anything.

‘Can you get off at Interlaken and …..’

‘And what?’

‘I am going back to London in a week’s time. And from there to India after a week in London. I have a lot of stuff to carry back. Can you please take some of my stuff with you? I will be coming to Bangalore in a couple of months’ time and I shall take it off you then. I just won’t be able to take it all back with me in my current state.’ A note of pleading had crept into Manja’s voice. I looked at Rashmi who shrugged her shoulders. I had no choice but to agree, after all the man had hurt himself skiing.

The thought of meeting Manja once again ruined the rest of the day for us. Neither of us wanted to meet him, but we couldn’t turn our backs on a wounded fellow-countryman. It was with an acute degree of discontent in our hearts that we broke our journey at Interlaken Ost and walked over to the Beau Rivage.

Manja was sitting on his bed, propped up with pillows.

‘How did it happen?’ I asked him.

Manja plunged into a detailed description of his accident. He had taken his Brazilian business associates to Grundenwald for what was supposed to be an idyllic day of skiing. They had taken the ski lifts to the top of the slope and started to come down. There had been no fresh snow for the past three weeks and the snow already on the ground had melted in the sun and then turned to ice. As they came down, Manja unfortunately happened to slide into a treacherous slab of ice which caused him to fly a few feet into the air and crash down.

Rashmi and I made appropriate noises of sympathy, but we had decided in advance that we wouldn’t spend too much time with Manja.

‘How did you get back to the hotel?’

‘Those Brazilians carried me to a taxi and brought me back!’

After a moment’s silence, I asked him. ‘So, what do you want us to carry to London for you?’

‘Not much,’ Manja said. ‘Just that bag with my ski boots,’ he pointed to the bag, ‘and that suitcase, which has a few clothes in it.’

I tried to lift the bag and the suitcase. They were both very heavy.

‘Manja, I doubt if Easyjet or Jet Airways will allow us to carry so much stuff with us,’ I protested. We have our own luggage.’

‘Of course, they will,’ Manja asserted, only to add, ‘I forgot, you must be travelling economy, right?’

I wanted to hit Manja on the face, but desisted. After all, he was hurt and unable to move.

‘Easyjet has only economy,’ Rashmi interjected.

‘Oh I don’t know. I never travel on such cheap airlines.’

I did not reply.

‘Tell you what. Take them with you. If either of those airlines makes a fuss, pay the excess charge. We can square up things when we meet next.’

Like hell I was going to do that. As if I hadn’t wasted money on account of Manja before!’

No, Manja. Sorry. I am not a stupid fool. You did me in once a few days ago and I will not let you do that again. I wish I could have said that, but I didn’t. Instead, I meekly nodded my head and avoided looking at Rashmi even though I could feel her eyes drilling into my back.

We picked up Manja’s stuff and walked out. As we came out of the lift into the lobby, the receptionist stopped us.

‘Do you stay in this hotel?’ she asked us in English which had a very heavy German accent. I don’t blame her for stopping us since Rashmi and I had walked into the hotel with three pieces of luggage between us and we were now walking out with five!

I explained. ‘No, we don’t stay here, but our friend Mr. Manjunath stays in Room 6112 on the sixth floor. We are carrying back some of Mr. Manjunath’s stuff back to India for him since he has had an accident and has twisted his ankle. He cannot …’

The receptionist started to dial a number.

‘Mr. Manjoonat?’

After checking my story with typical Swiss efficiency, she gave us a smile.

‘Mr. Manjoonat just confirmed what you said. I hope you have a pleasant journey.’

We walked on until the receptionist shouted a warning after us. ‘Please be very careful when you step out of the hotel. There may be ice on the steps and you may slip and fall. That’s how Mr. Manjoonat hurt himself the other day.’


Madhavan said...

Really good. LOL. Keep writing

Mahalakshmi said...

Its a well written story. The dialogues were the best part