Lights On! Past the proverbial crossroad.

On a travel, there is a charm that visiting a ‘famous’ place that is listed as a ‘must-see’ by Lonely Planet or spoken with great passion by someone who has already been there. Like for instance, The Brandenburg Gate of Berlin. Had I not seen the place, I would have gotten a look that people reserve for the most unkempt idiot who has suddenly inherited a fortune. 

Then there are other sorts of places, that are tucked away. That carry a very different charm. Look, “I-saw-something-that-you-didnt-and-you-spent-three-times-more-money-getting-to-the-place-and-back” value that these tucked away places have, is phenomenal, to say the least. Ofcourse, I have been a gullible sucker for such places.

But then, there are other places. Not really places, but aspects of daily life and living which carry a story or two in them. That quietly co-exist in a matter-of-fact way that you only get to discover it if you spend some more time on them. If only you plod, ask around and check. Theres a treasure trove in there. 

Ofcourse, I have something to show. If I wrote three paragraphs and you have come till here, well, there better be something. Isnt it? 

Here it is.


A traffic light in Berlin. Whats so special, you may wonder. Indeed there is. Well, for one they are not uniform. Thats surprising for Germany, wont you think? 
Below are three images from Wikipedia, that perhaps helps you see the difference. Both these co-exist. It was a matter of giant intrigue that and and some plodding later, I sat, shaking my head thinking about that I could have missed an interesting piece of history and culture, had I not asked around! Thank god I asked.   


The man seen on the traffic light is called the Amplemann. He was introduced on the traffic signals of East Berlin in 1961 by a traffic psychologist Kalr Peglau, with the argument that road users react more quickly to appealing symbols.  

Over a period of time, the  Amplemann merged with the culture of what was then East Berlin. He started getting cast as a ‘guardian angel’ in road safety training for children, games etc right from kindergarten. When kids connect at Kindergarten, the impressions are deep and stay for long! 

The reunification of Germany brought, the wall down and the people together. In the quest for standardisation, it was decided that the Amplemann, like several other East German aspects of life would soon be, as the cliched expression goes, be a relic of the past. The nineties saw the gradual phasing out of the Amplemann. But then, a ‘symbol’ that is in the minds of a a ‘society’ and a ‘way of life’ goes far beyond being just another symbol

In response to the discarding from the traffic lights, an industrial designer started making green and red Ampel lamps,  from the original glass of the discarded traffic lights. Ofcourse, it attracted attention. Ofcourse, the Amplemann was back on the discussion table, if not back on the traffic signals. 

Soon, a committee was formed to protect the Ampelmann. The arguments were both emotional and logical. The stocky figure of the Ampelmann  ensured that the symbol had more visibility, it was argued. Several products taking the shape of the Amplemann were launched. 

Fast forward to now. The Ampelmann urges you to stop or move, from the traffic lights of Berlin. Not from the main roads of Berlin, where his competitor, the “Euro man” holds court. But the Amplemann is back, so what if he is seen only in the secondary roads. He is still standing, as one of the last remaining visual elements of a part of a culture that is now part of a larger whole.

I picked large parts of the story from here and had it corroborated with the staff at the hotel, and a taxi driver who nodded in vigorous agreement. You didnt have to be Sherlock Holmes to find that they came from erstwhile East Germany! 

This perhaps was the most fascinating nugget that hooked my attention and enveloped my thoughts. Thank God I plodded around. And the plodding on the internet lead me to other aspects as well. For instance, I had no clue in the world that the traffic lights in Greece sported Wrestlers. Or for that matter, they sport Robots in Japan, on their traffic lights as well!  A compilation is here. And is even better here

Incredible world we live in.  We discover more of it, if we just plod around a little bit.  So, there is a note that I wrote for myself and stuck to my travel bag. “Ask around. Theres a story there”. Curiosity got me a lesson that usually lies sacrificed at the grand altar of ‘seeing one more tourist attraction’!

From The west of the west !

The cobwebs are getting dusted and its all just settling. I pick the pieces and start writing. Again ! Many reasons can fill in the silence in this space as a cogent explanation that range from ‘plain laziness’ to ‘bloggers block’. However, none gives it the exalted status of an exotic excuse in my mental map like ‘travelling’ !

Yes. I write this from the west of the western world. The ‘Bay Area’ as they call it. Our time here has been one of travel, catching up with the family. Resulting in several things, the chief amongst them being a mind that is calming down and sorting out priorities in life that REALLY matter. Quite obviously, this blog is back in action !


There are countless stories to tell of this land. A land that I have heard of ever so often. A landscape that we have attempted to explore by road, by sea and by air. Criss crossing a few states, experiencing snow, rain and Sun. A landscape thats ever so familiar yet ever so distant. A people that are polite, courteous and let you be.

I have been warned enough that I could well seen to be singing paeans to the American way of life, in a rather blind sort of a way. Other well meaning friends have cautioned me against looking at this ONLY through an India centric lens. A few others have encouraged me to just stand, stare and absorb for the ‘the truth is somewhere inbetween’.

Over a few next posts I am going to tell it like I have seen it and experienced. I just read that statement again, and it sounds like this blog is going to give some serious competition to wikileaks or something of that ilk ! Bah ! Regular readers know how farther away from that truth that statement is !

Ok here are some immediates. The tongue has been smitten by Starbucks coffee. However, the mouth refuses to close from the awe triggered ‘open’ position it took, looking at the sizes. ‘Tall’. ‘Grande’. ‘Venti’. ‘Trenta’ are how the sizes are named ! ‘Trenta’ is about a year and two months of my consumption. Well, almost.

More posts are coming. Will try and keep this space as updated as possible, snatching time between travel and such else.

Oh yes, there is something else that I have enjoyed quite a bit here.

Pushing the button to stop the traffic is cool just to let us cross the road. Back in Mumbai, an outstretched arm to stop is all that is needed to stop a humungous truck. ( Well, you are reduced to a small newspaper snippet, If the truck doesnt stop).

So people, I have been pushing this button, with glee that perhaps adorns the face of a rogue dictator when he pushes missile button !

Schwarzeneger is fading here. But then, I’ll be back !

Perch Power !

Wonder what image comes to your mind, the moment you hear ‘cop’ !

To a small towner like me, this elevated perch of the local traffic constable in Madurai is permanently etched in memory.

He had to climb a ladder to get to his post. And there he stood. Majestic. With his khaki trousers and white shirt. The metal buttons seeming to be just about successful in holding back a pot belly from falling apart.

Yet, tall. Majestic. And the wave of the white gloves that had the power to stop anyone on his or her tracks. Not that the tracks themselves had wheels that would set the road on fire. But that’s a different story.

At other times, he held a round metal object ensconced in those gloves. That almost gave them a God like visage. Written on it, in bright red : ‘STOP’ !

That blue and white perch, with a funny pointed top, designed with the ostensible reason of protecting him from the sun and the rain, offered a sight of opulence and raw power. In the eyes of school kids. Like me.

In the modern days, the perches have slowly started dwindling. As automated signals replace the white glove and the rolling glare ! The man himself, stands besides the signal or under the tree. Waiting for the next offender. Causing the mind to wonder if he misses the days where he was on a different plane !

Well. Nostalgic struck. The other day, a neighbours kid asked for some help. In writing out a small essay on ‘Ambition in life’. When i was her age, i told her, my ambition was to become a traffic constable.

She smiled. And asked me to get serious. And in all seriousness, i told her, that that was who i wanted to become.

What flew by as the explanation reached her ears were the….White gloves, gleaming buttons, metal whistle, polished shoes and power to wave anybody down. ( No. The potbelly isn’t part of this list).

She didn’t get it. I guess she doesn’t quite know the perch side of this story !

Road Series : Spare the plate !

What is 3 + 7 + 9 + 8 + 23 ?




I mean…I take time. Lets face it. I am slow. Ok ? With numbers especially. I have a problem with numbers. Give me words to play with. Any day. But get the idea.

I mean, look at the numbers that confront me with appearance or disappearance. Like that mirage of a bank balance. Or that illusion of a 32 inch waistline. Why go that far. Take the worry around my age. Ok. Ok. Stop.

The world runs on numbers. I know that. The missus knows the number of dosas i have gulped down. The boss clearly knows the number that i missed. And how many times as well. The pittance of the shares that i bought long back, disappeared before the fanfare in the heart around their purchase evaporated. Manufacturers alter their discount percentages the day i step in to buy.

A trillion dollars is a lot of number for a bucket and a bail out ! That’s my perspective. And of course, bonus is a bad word !

Of all of these, the only constant shareable number in peoples lives are number plate on their cars. I mean, its there. Right up there for the world to see. You can have it fancy or simple. But you cant have a number on the same car that goes up and down like the economy or the bank balance.

And that has been so comforting. For a long while now, while people look at the car and brand, i look at the number on the number plates. That degree of constancy is so assuring.

And for some time now that has been under threat. Obviously i don’t like it.

Indian numerals on number plates ! And i have seen this in Tamil, Marathi and kannada scripts. And quite obviously, i didn’t study numerals in any of them. I am illiterate ! And naturally all of them seem to be forms of art to me !

I am told that this is done to demonstrate a passion for the language. Come on. Come on!

Demonstrate passion. Sure !! Write an essay. Send text messages. Speak (abuse) in chaste native. Send children to native language schools. Speak the language. Read up literature. Ok. Ok. Ok. I give in. Go ahead and watch those damn mega serials. All in Gurmukhi, Tamil, , Marathi,Kannada, Hindi…

But please. Please. Spare the number plate

I mean, if you cut the lane, jumped signal, crashed into me and drove away, and i want to file a complaint. You sure dont expect me and the rest of us illiterates take a pen and paper to do a pencil sketch. Do you ?

Wait a minute…

Was that the idea ?!?

Road Series. Stop Listen Go !

Red. Amber. Green.
Stop. Listen. Go.

But..listen ? Where did that come from ? When the signal is changing from red to green, it doesn’t do so with a Zubin Mehta flourish or a clash of cymbals by a live orchestra ! What does one listen to ?

This was clicked at a junction in Madurai. Now, you may want to think that the populace of Madurai is so musically inclined that even traffic signals are opportunities to demonstrate a keen ear.

I hate to disappoint you. The keen ear is restricted, by and large, to the loud cacophony of horns, engines and tyres as motorists get ready to zip, fantasising a formula 1 track ahead !

I inferred that ‘Listen’ seemed to be a literal translation of the tamil word ‘ ‘gavani’ ( Pay attention) !

But there is another theory. In fact, another fact. Which i present to you.

In Madurai they had a practice of policemen wielding microphones. Traffic cops. And they shout into the microphone with the huge speakers amplifying it for everybody in this street. And the next two streets too !

Examples abound.

“You in the white car, that’s a no parking area”
” Oye Rickshaw, keep moving”
” Yellow shirt, walk on the pavement, not on the road” etc !

The first time i heard this, i thought it was super cool. And they even built a perch for the cops to place themselves in, get a vantage view and speak into the microphone.

And the cops were a pretty happy lot too. At least their faces seemed to say that. They didn’t have to blow the whistle. All they had to do was to shame a person ! “Oye you in the white shirt, cant you understand simple language ? Are you educated….. ?”

If at all i had any problem, it was this. That they had many speakers in many streets. With one policemen doing the rounds. Obviously in one street at any point in time !

So you know what happens !

‘Oye yellow shirt’, the speaker amplifies, ‘walk on the pavement’. And every gent around, in a street many corners away, does one thing for sure : checks the colour of his shirt & looks for the pavement !!

‘Rickshaw’ he bellows into the microphone, chastising one rickshaw puller who seems to have broken a no parking rule ! The entire neighbourhood reverberates with his booming voice. And rickshaw pullers in the entire vicinity tidy up their act !

Suddenly “Stop. Listen. Go” makes sense.

Do you think this can be adopted as some kind of a standard operating principle in the world ?!! Hmm !