It was all a blur to me. I could just about see the shrouded figure in front of me and through the corner of my eye; I saw the Pakistani approaching; weapon in hand. I saw the glint of metal; disintegrating into thousands of reflections, right in front of me. ..
“Hill mat!!!” He commanded in his raspy voice; probably seeing me trying to turn my head. I did not dare…Probably I brought it upon myself, I kind of knew; I wasn’t going to look the same when he was through…
(This was of course my first Haircut in London; at the affordable shop at Brick Lane (Yeah, that’s the one made famous by Monica Ali’s book). And yeah, by the way it’s always a problem that once I take off my glasses I hardly can see my own outline, or what the barber is doing to my hair!)
The first thing that a per-diem empowered IT guy does on landing in the UK is learn the multiplication tables of eighty. This essentially is necessitated by the realization that Indian Rupees are not all that valuable, once out of the country. And that one little innocuous British pound coin which looks like a 5 rupee coin is actually worth more than Eighty Indian Rupees…
If not pre-warned, you sense the power of exchange rate on the very first day while paying the cab fare from the airport Heathrow to your accommodation. “Eighty Five pounds!!!? That’s above Seven thousand rupees!! Back home one can pay a driver a salary, bonus and medical allowance for a couple of months with that sort of money” The Vovlo chasing Madivala autowallah who charges 30 bucks for 1.5 km in the morning doesn’t sound all that cut-throat suddenly.
Next day, you step out for lunch at the “cheap” Mc Donald’s. Now a Mc Donald’s value meal deceptively says £ 5.99 and looks cheap too till you apply the tables. “Five Hundred rupees for a damn burger???You can almost buy a 5 star buffet lunch at Leela Palace with that. Or one week of lunches at Shanti Sagar or a life time of lunches at the office cafeteria!!!
“But wait, there’s another meal for £2.75 and WOW YOU EVEN GET A FUN TOY along with it!!!! Maybe I’ll go for that.”
“Boss, that says Mc Donald’s Kids Meal. Maybe they don’t give it to you unless you are a kid, or have a kid”. ;-)
“Oh ok. I’m on a fast today!!”
And here’s more…Forty rupees for an SMS home, Six hundred rupees on train fare to a place thirty minutes away, Three times the price of a shirt if you prefer to get it ironed and guess how much for the haircut?
Any upmarket Central London hair salon would charge a guy at least £12 (nearly 1000 rupees) !!And if you are a non-metrosexual who hasn’t paid anything above forty bucks on a zimble haircut; that is sacrilege. (Ok, I’m talking to the guys here, not the weaker sex who’ll blow up a few hundreds on a haircut regardless of currency). That’s when you ask around and find places like the Pakistani Ali’s “Grace Hair Cut Saloon” in Brick lane with the same familiar shady look as a salon back home, with pictures of Sanjay Dutt, John Abraham and Hritik Roshan at the window.. There’s usually a line of hippie software engineers waiting there, whatever time you go. Well, the done thing among software guys coming here on projects is to come from India with the hairstyle of an Army cadet and don’t take a haircut here till you look like a member of a rock band. So when you sit in the line of people waiting, and look in the mirrors you get an idea how you would look being a part of a rock band. The barber skips the obvious while chatting you up – I mean the “Are you from India question” and directly goes to …"so you from Chennai?, no Bangalore?” You are overjoyed and pay £5 without grumbling; not bothering to remember that it’s still more than Four Hundred rupees!
Now on the entertainment options - (Warning : not all options are covered here, this being a family blog and more so because my wife reads my blog)
If you don’t get a place with Sky TV (i.e.: cable TV) you are stuck with 5 free channels on TV. The first one is BBC which exists solely for discussing whether the British Army should be in Iraq. This is what I call consistency- Three years ago when I was here; they were earnestly discussing the very same thing. Other channels are marginally better at times. However, sometimes things can get so boring if you don’t have Cable TV that once; for lack of choice; I spent an entire hour watching a pgm on the homing skills of pigeons!! Things are different if you have Sky. I actually moved to an apt with a friend mainly because they had Cable TV. And next day I was woken by the dreaded “Jhalak Dikhlaaajaaa” on B4U. Ah ! Am home! You also get Star Plus with the Saas Bahu Serials, Sony with its SMS-IN shows and so on! And that’s not all. There are millions of channels. You name it they have a channel for that – One for Wine, one for Teachers, one for Manchester United and what not ;-) Quite a lot music channels- good old Classic rock in VH1 Classic! And all those Comedies which you receive back home too. But…..guess what; there’s no trace of Cricket anywhere – I keep wondering how this place can call itself the birthplace of cricket. Champions Trophy was a “blink-and-you-miss-it” column in the papers. You have to pay about what the match-fixers pay the players just to get Sky Sports. There was a “Who wants to be a Millionaire” contestant who was asked for £ 64,000; “Which sport does Marcus Trescothick play?” He preferred to end the quiz there and walk away!!!
Movies cost a bomb to watch in Rupees terms; say quite a bit more than a PVR Gold class if you want to compare. Minus the complimentary popcorn and Pepsi. However, Bollywood is big here; the Dhoom2 poster covered half a wall outside the hall where I went to watch this new movie everyone’s talking about “Borat – Cultural Learnings from America to make benefit Glorious nation of Kazakhstan” (Don’t think it’ll be released in India without quite a few cuts- its an outrageous and often gross comedy which offends just about everyone!)
And now, a word about what you’re supposed to wear over here….
In the Investment Banking district of Central London, on the streets it’s a sea of black coats and jackets, you feel as though in the sets of Matrix. And inside office, the only right thing to wear is a dull white shirt with blue/ black trousers. Ok, even this is not the “Rin ki safedi “wallah white which gets people jobs and wives hugged. This is quite a dull variety of white which the guy in the ad would wear before the Rin magic worked. The more fashionable folks wear white shirts with light blue stripes or checks along with grey trousers. Once during my last trip I thought I’ll introduce London to Allen Solly’s Friday dressing and accordingly wore my bright orange shirt and beige trousers to office. Have to say I got the elevator pretty much to myself and an insight into how a Christmas tree feels like when all lit up! So, remember; if you are coming to the UK. Pack your bag with the dullest white shirts you ever had! And if ever you go clubbing – never go in the usual t-shirts and sneakers- They may not let you in- the right uniform is an un-inserted shirt, jeans and your most formal black shoes!!
And don’t think you can shop a lot for the entire village whilst you are here. Unlike the Yankee counterparts who load their check-in baggage with stuff from Wal-Mart, you don’t have too many cheap options here. Clothes are outrageously expensive in most of the swanky Shopping areas – except in one “oasis of low prices” which goes by the name Primark- where stuff is available for £6 - £7 which sounds friendly enough for the Exchange rate wizards. It’s easy to spot on a Saturday afternoon. You’ll just have to look out for a queue of Desi Software Engineers outside.
There are also Sunday markets which are quite fun – But not sure about the quality of products there. Last time I’d got a watch from one of these markets and presented it to Dad with a lot of fanfare. But within 3 months it went Kaput! Dad took it to an HMT showroom and they put in an HMT machine ; it still works – proving the adage” Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani!!!!” If you are not at Primark on a weekend, there is quite a lot to see here in London. Here's one truly cosmopolitan city with people who speak around 300 different languages trying to speak English in 500 different accents! And if you are in a train; you might notice that each face in the opposite row has a different hue. History, Culture, Art – Museums, Palaces, Art Galleries... This is the place for all these and a quizzer’s delight with many place names actually having contributed to the English Language. (I could write reams on this but I wonder if you’ll be interested ;-)) Entry is free in several museums but don’t think of buying the souvenirs if you love your wallet. It won’t look too good with a burnt hole in it. I swear on my per-diem !
(Ever had a funny experience coping with life onsite? Do write in the comments section...)