Thursday, December 29, 2011

An Obligatory Post

Me leaving footprints behind captured by Supernova
It’s the end of the year. Seriously, I don’t know where the year went. I say it every year like almost all of you but this year it is truly true. I swear. Most of it went into the gaping maws of absolutely murderous work schedule and in all my years of working, this is probably the worst. Not because of the work per se but the sheer quantum. I wished for ten more hands, three more brains and twelve more hours in a day.

I am not too much into New Year Resolutions. I never was actually. I can never decide what should I resolve that I could keep. Because it is a promise. And breaking a promise is a little like breaking a heart. Especially when the promise is to yourself.

But I did always expect that I would feel different on the stroke of midnight every 31st December. As if I would be new. Or my life would be new. As a kid, I expected some kind of magic, a swishing of wand or fairy dust or simply waking up to a new dream. Even through my teenage years as I developed that oh-i-am-grown-up-and-therefore-world-weary air, I still secretly hoped for something new and bright to light up the rest of the year. And I think in some secret part of my weary soul, I still cherish that hope.

To return to the dying year on hand and to be fair to it, 2011 did have its moments:
  •  Leaving my footprints in the sand at a Puri beach as I walked towards some unknown beacon
  •  India winning World Cup. It was ours. Not my dad’s generation’s.
  •  The big family reunion and the madness and fun at Agra
  •  The sheer beauty of a misty dawn at Jim Corbett National Park, as we went on a tiger’s trail in an open jeep across a river and saw Bambi instead
  • The rolling greens and the tall pine woods of a magical Ranikhet. Here I found the peace and the quiet joy I craved for
  • Trip to Latin America. The sight of snow-covered Andes from a plane window. Meandering through the streets of Santiago. Sunday market at Bogota. And an underground wishing well.
  • My first Diwali without amma. It felt a little unreal.
  • My first trip to London. A lot of mad, mad work and then the exploration and walking and the cold. The history and the mall. And a hope for return.
  • Lovely Christmas weekend. Walking through an enchanting Park Street. Santa Clauses beaming from all directions. A canopy of lights to walk under. The infectious joy on the roads. The fun lunch with old friends. The memories and the jokes. Priceless.

I hope that 2012 would also bring such moments for me. Some big. Some small. A forget-me-not a day would suit me just fine.

I hope that 2012 also brings you loads of moments that fill you with happiness and make you feel alive. All the new that you want and all the old that you need. Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Country Cousin in London: Part II

I stayed at Harrow-on-the-Hill. This place is almost like a mini-India, with Indians or those of Indian origin abounding in all hues, shapes and sizes. It is quite a bustling area during the day, with a busy mall, plenty of bakeries, cafes, restaurants dotting the place.

However, it is difficult to identify it as the same place in the evenings, after dark. And I do mean that literally. On my first day, I returned from office at around 8.30 pm – early by my standards in India. Guess what I found. The place was almost shut down, with only a few eateries open and I was told that even those would close in a while. Seriously, you gotta be kidding me. And the roads were practically deserted. The short walk to my hotel felt like an eternity. I was kind of freaked out by how there was almost no one out and I constantly felt apprehensive, as if someone would leap out of the shadows and mug me. Call me paranoid if you will but in a new city if you are walking down an area at barely 8.30 in the evening and find it deserted, I think you are entitled to feel a little uncomfortable. I had initially thought that maybe it was a winter phenomenon but I was told later by a friend who was there in summer that it was not.

So, you would understand if I felt wary of returning to the area after dark by myself. So, even when I went out for sightseeing, I tried to be back by six-ish . Maybe if I make the next trip in summer, it wouldn’t be as bad.

Anyway, back to all my doings in the city.  Sunday was my last day in London. I was taking the 10 o’clock flight next morning to return home.

Going by my previous day’s experience I knew that I would have plenty of walking to do today also and it would be unrealistic to think that I could cover too many places. So, I had to plan. I could either do the Museum circuit or try the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square or do some shopping at Oxford Street. Well, I decided in favour of starting the day at National Gallery.

It was another blisteringly cold day but I thought I was well covered. There was only one small hitch. The gloves. Well, you see, I was wearing these woollen gloves, which were great for protection from cold but made my fingers thick, clumsy and unfamiliar. Result: I could either take photographs or I could keep my hands warm.

This was not so much of a problem at the National Gallery. You are not allowed to take snaps. Problem solved.

National Gallery, London
The entry to the Gallery is free, though visitors are encouraged to voluntary donate any amount they want to the museum. I thought it was a very nice system and wondered why we could not try something similar back home. The Da Vinci section, however, required tickets and only a pre-decided number of visitors were allowed in a single day. Unfortunately for me, the tickets were sold out for the day. Regardless, I was fascinated by all the art that I did see. The Biblical theme was predominant with Christ, Mary, the Apostles and Parables portrayed in so many different moods. Bold colours, vibrant strokes somehow made even the most austere of moments seem pagan.

And then there were some which were unabashed in their sensuality. Delilah betraying Samson or Venus seducing Mars. There were moments of quiet contemplation too. A perplexed gaze looking out of a window or visions in dreams. Stern, family portraits of royalty and nobility – the kings and princes, the ladies and their corpulent husbands, noble children trussed up and made to sit still for the paintings. They were all there. I wanted to sit and stare at some of them for hours but time was a luxury that I didn’t have.

Plus, my feet were killing me again. But there was no help, I had not even gone out to the Square yet.

So, I walked down first to the Gallery shop and bought postcards of beautiful paintings, sternly lectured myself against buying something totally beautiful and extravagant like a deck of playing cards with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers printed on their back. I still think about them.

Christmas Tree at Trafalgar Square
Countdown to the Olympics
I walked out to the Trafalgar Square and found that the sun which had peeked in the morning had gone AWOL again. Yet, that didn’t quite dim my excitement. Here I was. At Trafalgar Square. There was a huge Christmas tree, which was a gift from Norway to Britain. A clock showing the countdown to London Olympics. Families with squealing kids enjoying a Sunday outside. Tourists too. Like me. I wanted to sit here and soak in the atmosphere. This famous place. And here I was.

Trafalgar Square
You could also take the Jubilee walkway from this point. It was a pathway designed to commemorate the Queen’s silver jubilee in year 1977. I started to walk along it but I couldn’t keep up. The cold and the fatigue were catching up with me fast and I still wanted to visit Oxford Street.

I alighted at Oxford Circus and stepped out into an almost enchanted place. There were lovely Christmas decorations all over the place. The streets were bustling with revelry and shoppers. I got hailed by a random someone who claimed to work in a fashion house and complimented my coat. Well, thank you very much. That is all I could say even as it all felt quite surreal.

I roamed around the streets, walked into a few shops. Looked at some very quirky and colourful merchandise. Animal shaped clothes pegs and dish holders. Collapsible dresses and rings the size of two fingers.

There were lights stringed across the roads. Santa and sleigh cut-outs smiling merrily at you. All it needed was white snowflakes drifting slowly to the ground to turn the enchanting into magical.

When I boarded my flight next day, I felt happy to be returning but I also left a wish behind. To come back again. Do all that I could not do this time. And somehow I had this feeling that I would be back. Amen.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Country Cousin in London: Part I

Last evening in London on my first trip to the city. It’s freezing outside, though my room is quite toasty. I am exhausted and looking forward to returning home. And also hoping that I return here again with some more leisure on my hand.

And you do need leisure to explore London. I am here for a business trip. The whole week was extremely busy with nary a moment to spare. Thankfully, the work went more smoothly than we expected and therefore, the weekend was mine.

I had first thought, quite naively as it turned out, that in two days, I would be able to cover all the London staples like Buckingham’s, Tower of London, Madame Tussaud’s, Natural History Museum, Westminster etc. But boy, was I wrong!

The primary reason for this is that in London you have to walk quite a lot. Apart from the fact that I am not used to walking quite so much, the unfamiliar boots and the heavy coat that I had to wear to keep the cold away made it all the more difficult to walk around. It took me six hours to cover the entire Tower yesterday and four hours to go through National Gallery, Trafalgar Square and parts of Oxford Circus. And at the end of these hours, even though I have a little more time to kill, I don’t have the stamina to do it.

Anyway, let me start at the start. We landed on Tuesday morning and within an hour of reaching the hotel, we were off for a meeting. The rest of the week went in really late night and early morning working, peppered with presentations to clients and meetings. Though in between this all, my boss – a London veteran – and some of my other colleagues took the time and trouble to explain to me how to move about in the city and how should I plan my exploration.

London is large and well connected through tube and buses. There are cabs but these are quite expensive. My colleagues generally book them in advance when needed. Even the tube is quite costly if you buy a ticket everytime you take it. So, you buy Oyster cards. My boss showed me the ropes the first day and I felt so much like the gawky, awkward country cousin. it was the same when we visited the client’s office, which was this really beautiful, sophisticated, grand and awesome building in the Temple area. This client has its own security and protocol system and it can be quite overwhelming if you are visiting them for the first time. Country cousin, that was me!

Friday night after the final presentation was over, we went out for dinner and a late night movie. Sherlock Holmes and the Game of Shadows it was. A highly stylized Holmes, essayed by Robert Downey Jr. and Watson by Jude Law, this Guy Ritchie movie was interesting but I found it a little surreal. In my head, Holmes has always been more cerebral rather than this really well trained action hero.

Saturday morning, I set out on my own. It was drizzling and the wind felt like some vengeful witch with a broom wanting to eat me alive. I went down to Tower Hill and spent the day gawking at the beautiful sight of the Tower Bridge stretching across Thames, listening to Yeoman’s tour of the Tower and gawking at all the echoes of all those centuries of History. It is a painful place, where traitors – either real or imagined – were imprisoned, executed or murdered. The Tower is also home to the Crown jewels – they are majestic but I could not help but recall how a lot of their glory is at the expense of nations like ours.

Yet, my favourite part of the day was at sunset, when with really aching feet, I walked down to the pier, where you can take a boat trip. The royal blue and stone grandeur of the bridge silhouetted against a sky turning a pale crimson that bled out into the blue, as Thames undulated underneath, as if smilingly saying, “So much water under the bridge. Yet here you are!”

Tower Bridge at Sunset

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dear Author, “What’s wrong with you?”

Inheritance, Book 4, Christopher  Paolini
I have just finished reading the fouth and final book in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance / Eragon series. Finally. And boy, was it a chore! It is an extremely popular series and loads of people all round the world apparently love it. I don’t. I read the final book simply as an obligation.

There are several other wildly successful and loved books which I barely can tolerate and some I outright dislike. I know saying such things aloud is blasphemy (grins) but I think I would dedicate this post to such books / book series. The books are in no particular order and some may even have started out promisingly before crumbling into a heap of illogic, no resolutions and plain ol’ ‘get-it-over-already’.

  • Twilight Series, Stephanie Meyer: Okay, don’t shoot me. Part I of the final book’s movie version, “Breaking Dawn” released earlier this week and is apparently generating mass hysteria and wild-eyed frenzy all over the world. I, for one, have difficulty understanding the lure. The first book starts off with an interesting plot. Girl moves to a new place, new school. Girl is attracted to a mysterious, good-looking class mate. Boy likes her back though he has a strange way of showing it. Turns out he is a vampire – a vegetarian vampire, if you will – and he tries to resist her because he wants to protect her from his kind. But it’s true love for Bella Swan and she is willing to sacrifice everything for him. After an abduction and rescue from another psychotic vampire, all’s well in their world. Okay, the girl – I can’t call her heroine, she has to display some guts for that – is plain insipid, whiny and clingy. Edward – the vampire hero - is intriguing and noble, the shining knights kind sans the armour. But it’s all a little different, so I like it. Then the horror starts in the second book. All of a sudden, you have vampire royalty threatening to kill our oh-so-delectable heroine. The werewolves come to party but there is just one problem – they are arch enemies of vampires. And then there’s Jacob, Bella’s best friend, who turns out to be a werewolf and in love with Bella. Guess, what happens next. In one truly cringeworthy and incredulous scene, Bella is camped out in snowy mountains with both the vampire and the werewolf – they are united in their goal to protect little Ms. Damsel-in-perpetual-danger. I can’t precisely remember why. And because she is freezing and her boyfriend Edward being vampire is cold to touch, she sleeps – literally – with Jacob to get warm and here’s the whopper, with Edward’s permission. He is a saint, ain’t he? But the final cake is taken by *spoiler ahead* when Jacob finds himself mated for life with Edward and Bella’s daughter literally the moment she is born and just like that the triangle becomes a weird set of parallel lines! “spoiler ends* 
  • The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho: I read quite often how celebs cite this book as their favourite. A fabulous read which in a way opens their eyes to the truth of life. Me? I found it difficult to finish, despite its slim size and simple language. Because it moralizes. Preaches. And I hate that kind of tone. It reminds me of Moral Science lessons in school and I couldn’t stand the subject. At the end of every chapter, there is almost a moral of the story kind of lesson. It does have its moments though. I especially liked the concept of how the entire universe conspires to help you attain the one thing you truly desire. The story is simple but pretentious – a feat that I have not seen many authors accomplish and I am not too sure that I like it.
  •  Eragon / Inheritance Series, Christopher Paolini: I just couldn't get over how ambitious it tried to be while finding its inspiration in two exceptional and unparalleled worlds that Rowling and J.R.R Tolkien created. The quest to defeat an all pervasive evil ruler - Galbatorix - with the help of various magical species from elves to dwarves and dragons (the last alone were a new addition to this world) seems like a pale imitation of the epic battle that Aragorn (see how even the name is similar), Frondo, Gandalf and others wage against Sauron in Lord of the Rings. In fact, there is a hint of Hunger Games also in the last throes of the book.  And Eragon is no epic hero. The secondary characters like Roran, Nasauda and Murtagh are more interesting. In fact, it is one of my peeves that Paolini leaves so much unresolved when it comes to these people.  Eragon is insipid and is only a circumstantial hero. He would have been very ordinary if a dragon had not hatched for him. He whines quite a lot. He has no true ties except with Saphira, his dragon. He pines for Arya, the elf but never has the courage to speak to her freely. Roran, on the other hand, is a self-made hero. Here is a man, a hero who wins his battles through sheer courage, ingenuity and wit, without magic. A true master of his fate. This holds true of Nasauda too. A young girl, barely older than Eragon, she leads an epic army into a war against the greatest evil. She has no magic in her. But she is gritty, a great strategist and an astute leader. She has her moments of vanity and regret but they quickly pass. And Muratgh! I wish Paolini had taken more time and effort to sketch that particular strain. Even Galbatorix - when we finally - see him comes across as quite ordinary for a villain competing with the likes of Voldemort or Sauron. Trust me when I say that the climax was quite anti-climactic. Plus, the book could have been half in length. 
  •  Books by Chetan Bhagat: I have read two and have no intention of reading others. At least, not because I want to. It could be because my sister has bought one and for the lack of anything better I do so. I have read One Night at Call Centre and Three Mistakes of my Life. If I were to write about all the things I dislike about his books, I would never stop. But for starters how about the stories themselves, which are like bad Bollywood potboilers in English. Phone call from God, anyone? And what about romancing best friend’s sister and sleeping with her on the terrace? That’s certainly original. Then there’s the writing style and language. Which is not too bad, if you were a seventh standard student writing in school magazine. Then it would have shown potential. I know a lot of people like his books especially because the language is everyday, simple English but I would direct them to the inimitable R. K. Narayan to see how the same tool can be used to greater and beautiful effect. 
  • A House for Mr. Biswas, V. S. Naipual: No! I can see you gasping in horror. It is a classic. Critically acclaimed. A literary gem. Sorry, I didn’t like it. I felt no empathy for Mr. Biswas or his miserable little quest for a house. And not because his life has no grandeur of an epic or the shine, no matter how brittle, of a posh sophisticated society. Simply because, his character seems like one drawn out torture with no little moments of happiness at all. If you have read the great Hindi author Premchand, you would see what I am talking about. he also writes about the common man – the farmer, the daily labourer, the shepherd – but there are moments in his stories, even when they end tragically, where the characters see hope and for a shining instant, all’s well with the world. Naipual’s book lacks that. 

That’s it for now. There are some others that I could talk about but I see the length of my post and realize that it is a potential sleeping drug. :-) 

But I would love to hear about books that you did not like and then we can compare notes.

Until then, ciao.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ukraine Unexplored

So, I am back home after a trip to Ukraine. Yes, you heard right. Ukraine.

When I was first told about the trip, I was like “Huh?” I mean who goes to Ukraine, right? I was proven wrong when I had to go down to their embassy in Delhi to apply for visa in person. You wouldn’t believe the rush that had come to apply for visa. Dancers, students, businessmen galore. That was an eye-opener.

Anyhow, after spending almost an entire working day convincing them that I had no nefarious motives in visiting Kiev, I finally got the visa about a week back.

I reached Kiev on Monday afternoon and left yesterday morning. Since I spent most of my time in meetings, working and presenting, I had no time to explore the city, except on my way to client’s office from the hotel and back and on the way to the airport.

The glimpses I had of the city made me really wish that I had more time. It is a city rich in history and endowed with breathtaking natural beauty also. It is late autumn in the city currently and the temperature is generally below 10 degrees. The lovely gold, russet, green and orange of the falling leaves, crunching under feet reminded me of Keats’s ‘To Autumn’, though I suspect that not everyone in the country see this time as “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”.

The architecture clearly was similar to what you would expect in the Russian cities. The hotel I stayed in had a beautiful old world facade and the interiors were gilded opulence without going over the top.

Since I do not have more details to provide about the city, I leave you with some pictures that 
I managed to capture from my hotel balcony and cab windows.

Until next time, ciao.

These black and gold angels watch over the city

View from my balcony

View from my balcony

Lobby at Opera Hotel, Kiev

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

I am lovin' it!

It’s that time of the year again. The time of glorious festivals – Durga Puja / Navratri and then Diwali. Now, while Diwali is a nationwide phenomenon, Durga Puja / Navratri is big in pockets of India like Bengal, Gujarat etc.

Anyway, I love this time of the year. The city is decked up bright and beautiful. Everyone’s in good spirit – well, mostly – and I get four days straight of holidays for the Pujas!!! And that my dear, is why I love the Pujas the most.

My neighbourhood Durga Idol - last year
When I was a kid, I used to really enjoy gallivanting around the town, staring up at the gorgeous and huge idols of the goddess and her children, the menacing visage of Mahisasur, the breathtaking splendour of the pandals and the yummy delicious food. It was one of those rare times in the year, when I went out. And I was not alone in this regard. Most of my friends, cousins were also in the same situation. Remember, these were the days before parents used to give humongous amounts of pocket money that could be spent in multiplexes, coffee shops and shopping malls. We were no models of obedience but we definitely did not have the freedom that kids these days have.

But, I digress. The point is that I do not like this pandal hopping anymore. I have not done this for more than a decade now. I no longer have patience for the jostling, pushing crowds, where some creep would always try to grope and feel and some overbearingly fat lady would always be stepping on my toes. And I have one of the biggest pujas of the city right next door practically, which incidentally makes the lives of the neighbourhood residents quite difficult with all those big barricades.

Yet, I love these four days. Ever since I have started working, I think I live for these long holidays. Puja is one of them. For these four days, I do not step out of my house. I just laze around, read, eat, watch TV, sleep, enjoy the view of brightly dressed throngs of people from my balcony and while away my time. And this year, these four days have followed a weekend – so in effect, six days of doing nothing! You have to be me to appreciate the beauty of this, after the really, really terrible time I have had this year at work.

So far, I have spent half of this time catching up on sleep – getting up at 11 every morning – reading anything and everything (from Tagore to Gibran to fantasy Romance), cleaning my room (my only useful but back-breaking exercise), watching Masterchef Australia religiously and relishing my solitude. (Even as I write this, my mom is sitting next to me and berating, “God knows, what’s wrong with you! People go out and enjoy at this time and you do not even feel like doing this!” )

My black bean bag is my throne these days. I loll about it in it and plan my wardrobe for Diwali. Now that is my favourite festival. The lights, the crackers, the family get-together, the jokes, the samosas – I love it all. I love decking up – I especially shop for a sari for the occasion. I love artistically arranging the candles and diyas around my house. I adore the time spent with my family, laughing and pulling each other’s leg. It is during such occasions that I cannot help but thank my lucky stars that I have all these wonderful people as my family. Although this year would also be a little sad. I will miss my grandma but I hope she would be watching us.

So, while all you busy people go about your business, I am going to drag my throne in from the veranda, put my feet up and do nothing. Just nothing at all!

Happy Pujas.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Murphy - Part II

Note to Readers: This is Part II of my post on Murphy. Click on the following link to read Part I:

“Hello, again.”

I looked up to see a familiar face but could not quite place him.

“Um. Hi.”

I think he read the confusion on my face because he squatted down on one knee to bring himself to my eye level.

“You don’t remember me?” he smiled and things kind of clicked into place. And I had no intention of admitting that.

“No. I am sorry.” I shoved the book I had been browsing, back into the shelf and got up. Damn. But I had been looking forward to splurging on books this quiet evening. It had been such a long time too.

“Really?” He had followed me out of the bookstore, even as I tried to reach my driver over the phone. Pick up the phone, I prayed. He didn’t.

“Yes”, I turned on him. “Now leave before I get you into trouble for harassing me.” I redialled my driver’s number.

He stood unperturbed next to me. “He is not going to answer the call.”

I started walking up the street. “Not until I want him to”, he continued to speak behind me.

I whirled around. “What utter crap! I do not know who you are, so stop following me around!”

“Really?” he asked once more in a quiet voice, laced with amusement.

And I simply did not know what to do. I thought of – and more than once, mind you – engaging all these people passing me by in putting him in his place but I knew that that would be of no use. Because despite my stubborn refusal to say it aloud so far, I knew him. Despite having met him just once months ago, I knew him. And I had known him a long time before that, curse his blasted soul.

I tried to change tack. “Okay. Okay. I know you think you are Murphy but look I don’t see how it concerns me in any which way. And you know it is not proper to harass a woman on the streets like this. You look like a gentleman, so it would be...”

“I have a deal to propose”, he cut off my tirade.

“A deal?” I sputtered, before reclaiming my usual glib tongue. “What sort of deal? And why would I be interested in that?”

“A deal that would rid you of that wretched law of mine.”

My eyes went wide at that. But I came to my senses. “Get lost.”

I quickly strode away from him, refusing to look back. My phone rang. My driver was calling to enquire where I was. I gave him my location and as I got into the car, I pretended to just cast my eyes around. He was nowhere to be seen.

Good riddance, I thought to myself. But then why did I feel as if I had lost an opportunity?

I had no answer to that, until we met again.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Latino Wonders

Don’t be misled by the title. It is not about wonder of Latin America. It is more about what Latinos found wondrous about us. I was flattered, amused and amazed – all of them put together at various points. Do tell me what you make of the following:
  • “How long did you have to travel to reach here?”
  •  “So, did you go to US to study English?”
  •  “Do you wear Sarees to office?” This was from someone whose wife was an absolute India fan and found India fascinating. He, himself, seemed to have a fondness for the country.
  •  “Do you eat with hand?” Same guy as above. He had to do this at some restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, where he had spent some years.
  •  “How come you speak to each other in English?”
  •  “Are all the people in India vegetarian? No? Then why are both of you?” This we got asked quite frequently, since both of us were Vegetarian.
  •  “Is India really as spiritual as they show in Movies?”
  •  “You have such nice skin colour? Everyone here wants it. I will give you a discount because you have such nice colour!”

Despite and because of everything, I found the people warm and friendly, as eager to show off their land and culture as any of us. Be it nodding a ‘no’ to our request of “English, please” or an “Ah, yes” when they did manage to understand what we were trying through bad mime. The clients and colleagues who very thoughtfully translated the Spanish menus, our queries for vegetarian food to uncomprehending waiters and waitresses and wrote down for us the places to visit during our free time.

So, Gracias, Latin America.

Latino Days

Yesterday, when the plane touched down on Kolkata’s NSC Bose Airport, I felt a huge smile split my face. Homecoming does that to me. And this time, I had returned from half the world away. Literally.

I was on a two week trip to Latin America. Chile and Colombia to be precise.

I was excited in the weeks leading up to the trip. But also very tired. It was an official trip and there was loads to be done in the days leading up to it. Late nights working. Whole nights working. Weekends. Early mornings. You name it and the chances were that I was working at that time. Add to that, the pressure of unseen clients, who were – surprise, surprise – very demanding. Even a few hours before we were to board our flight, my colleague and I were busy instructing the team who would be working at the office when we were gone. Phew.

Willy-nilly, we boarded the flight(s). And boy, was it a long trip. Forty eight hours, if you want a number. Including a twelve hour stopover in Sao Paolo. And no, we could not go out because that required a transit visa.

View of Andes from a plane
But the first sight of snow-covered Andes, as we approached Santiago, made me feel so glad. It was breath-taking. I have professed my love for the mountains in my previous posts. This sight took it to a new level. I had never seen the white peaks from the height of the sky. And there I was, having my jaw drop, eyes wide open and heart stopping with the sight of snowy mountains spread out like some feast for all hedonists below us. Awesome.

The first three days in Santiago were spent in a whirlwind of workshops, meeting, telecons and dinners / lunches with clients. But I still could savour the view of those mountains from my balcony. The darkness that still enveloped the city at 7.30 in the morning. The biting cold that penetrated the two layers of clothes. The wide, clean streets. The very European and chic feel of the city. The Spanish architecture in the older parts of the city. And of course, the chivalry of Latino men. Yes, they open the doors for you and would never precede you when leaving a room. (I don’t particularly need this but it does make a girl feel good, I swear). I also spotted a couple of Marutis (the cars, in case you are wondering) and made me realize that it is truly a global world.

But it was not all good. Finding vegetarian food feels like a quest for Holy Grail. It got a little easier, once we located the nearest Subway. And then there’s the language issue. Getting people to understand English is nearly always an exercise in frustration. And no, it’s not an accent issue. The Latinos generally do not know English. Spanish is the lingua franca. It is not that difficult a language to follow if you are reading it. The staccato speech, however, is a trial. And the place is expensive. A five minute ride in the cab would cost you a couple of thousand pesos or about hundred rupees. Compared to India, though people told us that it is cheaper compared to Brazil, Argentina etc. Especially the branded stuff. We, however, found that buying souvenirs was also exorbitant. I think, we were also limited by our ability to bargain, with language and our so obvious foreign appearances being the leading causes.

Colombia was another six hours flight away. Now, this was a country, I went to with a lot of pre-conceived notions. Drugs, lawlessness et al, fed by books and movies, led by Mr. Forsythe and company. Also, Wikitravel advised not walking alone at night, not hailing cabs on your own and locking the doors of the cabs, when sitting inside!
So, I was pleasantly surprised in Bogota. I am sure that those parts of Colombia exist. But the area that we were staying in and the places we went to were decidedly upmarket, with a distinct cosmopolitan feel to them.

Bogota was also cold but closer to Kolkata winters – chilly but pleasant. My hotel room was airy, spacious and cheery, with full-length windows dominating one wall. The food situation was also better, though French Fries would turn out to be our principal source of sustenance in these two weeks that we spent in Latin America.

Metal Sculpture of a Salt Miner, Zipaquira
We had a weekend at our disposal. We chose to visit Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá on the first day. It came highly recommended by a Colombian we had met in Santiago. It is an underground Cathedral, built in a salt mine. It is some 200 metres below the surface of the earth and you walk the entire way in and out. It is quite awesome and you can taste salt on your tongue even as you speak. There is a salt waterfall – an entire wall covered with raw salt. We also took a tour of the miner’s route, which involved a five minute walk in a completely dark and narrow cave, with our headlamps turned off. And trust me, it feels like hours if you have to let you hands be your eyes.

But my favourite part was the wishing well. It was a small pool, with coins of various denominations glittering at its bottom. You could make a wish by turning your back to the well and throwing a coin (denomination and currency irrelevant) over your left shoulder with your right hand. I made a wish and threw the coin. And it hit the water. Not everyone’s did. So, I like to live in hope J

Anyway, what surprised me that this man-made wonder is barely thirty years old and not centuries, like I had originally believed. While I was still awed, I realized that it was a very clever piece of marketing that we could learn from back home. Same was the case with El Museo del Oro (the Gold Museuem). Beautiful prehistoric and tribal gold ornaments, weapons and other artefacts displayed artistically with cleverly designed videos, photographs, light and sound shows that reel you in. And entry is free. It is well-maintained, with no empty cases or missing descriptions. The thought of Indian Museum trying something similar crossed my mind several times.

Once, the weekend was over, we again spent most of our time working, though on the last day, we visited this delightful cafe called Crepes and Waffles. It turned out to be a chain of cafes, quite famous in Colombia. It had, much to our delight, quite a spread of vegetarian dishes, including one called Gandhi!

At the end of two weeks, though, we were ready to return home. And my heart soared higher and higher as we changed flights at Sao Paolo, Doha and then finally at Delhi. It was fitting that on the flight to Kolkata, I saw one of the most amazing visions. A huge white lion, sitting regally on the cottony clouds, with the morning sun, shining bright. A pity, I do not have a picture to share with you.

Quite a long post this has been. So, I will end it here. Although I will definitely do another one on the most common questions / comments that we heard. It was strange being a foreigner and being the object of some other people’s preconceived notions.

An experience to remember, to say the least. This travelling to places actually half a world, three continents and seven seas away.
Until next time. Ciao.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Light in a Salt Mine

Groping in the dark, through a narrow tunnel, 200 metres below earth. Knowing what’s ahead of you through precious touch – of a garment, a scrape of rough stone, a taste of raw salt. It’s an experience – a mix of excitement and novelty, and just a dash of fear. What if you can no longer touch anyone or anything but air? What if the murmur of excited voices that echo around you fade away and you find yourself all alone. But, luckily for you, some short moments later, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Literally. Like you wished there to be light and there was light. And as you look behind into the gaping maws of darkness, you know that you would never again take Light, no matter how feeble, for granted.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Murphy – Part I

“Hi. I am Murphy.”

I turned around at the voice. You must be kidding, I thought, even as I took in his appearance. He could have passed off as a successful executive at his casual best in blue jeans and white shirt. Or he could have been a bohemian writer or an artist. Difficult to peg him.

In return, he just waited with polite patience.

“Sorry?” I managed.

“I said, I am Murphy”, he repeated, courteous and bland. “I believe you wanted to meet me.”

“Huh?” I surely wasn’t doing a good job of seeming articulate.

“I said, I believe...” he started to repeat but I came out of my stupor and cut him off.

“I know what you said. I don’t quite know what to make of it. And I am not sure I want to know any further. So, if you will excuse me, I am waiting for a friend.” I began to walk off towards the entrance of the restaurant in the swanky city mall.

“This is not a trick, you know.” Damn. He was still by my side.

“I don’t know what you are talking about”, I insisted. But what if it was. Nah. Such things don’t really happen to mundane people like me. I lengthened my stride. Well, as much as, I could, which wasn’t much.

And it was an exercise in vain. Because he still refused to go away.

“Look”, I turned and tried to give him one of my frosty glares (I am quite good at it, you know). “You could be Murphy, Brian or Murtaza. I don’t know why you are following me. Why you think that I ever wanted to meet you. Hell, I don’t know any man named Murphy.”

“Are you sure?”

When I just stared at him mulishly, he smiled and leaned back against the rails of the aisle in which we stood. “You are early”, he said pleasantly. “But your friend is likely to be late. Very late because of the traffic. And look you have not even brought a book to pass the time.”

“You can’t possibly know that.” I was adamant. It was true that I was early but I had not called my friend yet. I had been about to when he – I refused to consider him as Murphy – had appeared.

“I do.” His assurance was maddening. “Call and check.” With those words he simply sauntered off.

And guess what, he was right. Only, that entire episode seemed like some alternate reality. But I knew, even as a chill passed through me, that it was not.

He was Murphy.

The question was, would he meet me again?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

One for Friends

Having passed a personal milestone very recently, I was wondering where life leads from here. And when I begin to think along these lines, I can be extremely brooding. But thank god for friends who pull you out from detrimental self-introspection.

I am lucky that way. I am not among those who make friends everywhere. And when I say friends, I mean ‘friends’, not just mere friendly acquaintances. I have plenty of those but friends I have only a handful and those I really cherish.

I am proud to say that I can count some of my family members among my closest friends. My cousins with whom I grew up and a few others I discovered late in life – they all bring such joy to me. I know I am always welcome in their homes and in their hearts. If I go to their city, they would meet me half-way and make my stay warm and cheerful.

Then there are those that I met along the paths of life. Some I have known for more than a decade (cheers to you, girls – you know who you are) and a few that my career has gifted me. I am so blessed that I have them in my life.

So, yeah. This post is about counting my blessings. And my friends, you are right up there. You make an ordinary day, extraordinary. You make cribbing seem like the best pastime. You add that extra zing to watching movies. Shopping with you is sheer bliss. Cards games with you turn unbearably hot afternoons into slices of paradise. Arguing, squabbling and quarrelling with you only makes me realize how much I miss you all when we are asunder. Coffee is just not the same without you.

We are so different. You, with your vivacious personality. You, with your deep soul of a poet. You, so brave and stoic in bearing your responsibilities. You, whose world revolves around her family. You, quiet and sober, until you are with us. You, such an adoring father. You, an incorrigible flirt. You, shy and timid. You with your love of uninhibited dancing. All of you. So different.

But it comes down to that one big commonality. Us. We are friends. And thank god, for Us.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Sunlit Perfection and Wodehouse

Jeeves in the Offing             Image via Wikipedia
I have been thinking about doing a post on one of my favourite feel-good authors for a long time. He is British, witty and a master of his genre. A final clue: Jeeves.

I discovered Wodehouse in college. I had heard of him earlier, of course. But it was finally in college that I finally had the chance to explore the world of beautiful comic timing, with and satire that he so effortlessly created.

I became a member of British Council’s library to have easy access to loads of reference books that they had on English Literature. But those who know me would tell you that I would never leave a library without taking something for my own pleasure. Since BCL in those days, stocked British authors almost exclusively (the result of literary myopia in my opinion), the choice of books to read for fun was limited to classics (I adore them by the way) and Wodehouse.

My first encounter with Bertie Wooster and his cronies, the Drones, his ensemble of aunts – from scary to the one with potential for affection – and Jeeves opened to me a whole new world of witty dialogue and situational comedy that is almost unparalleled. Wodehouse is laughing at the catastrophes that invade the lives of rich British aristocracy, abounding in absent minded peers, good-for-nothing bachelors, shrewd spinsters and occasional damsels in distress. And you know what the biggest laugh is – the rescue of the gentry by the supremely intelligent butler, Jeeves. There can be no greater commentary on the redundancy of the gentry than the ease with which Jeeves extricates Wooster and the entourage of his world from all sorts of hilarious (to us, not to them) situations.

There is humour in every line and in every expression. The names of the characters are full of comic delight. Who else can come with names like Wooster (sounds like a wuss), Pongo Twistleton and Fink-Nottle for characters. And what about Blandings as the estate name for his series about a pig-loving peer, Lord Emsworth. Yes, the peers have weird loves – pigs for Emsworth and newts for Fink-Nottle. The troubles in their world are no greater than the schemes to win the annual fat pig competition, the attempts to steal a prized French cook, getting bachelors engaged and married to rich heiresses and avoiding dictatorial aunts. I can clearly visualise the scene in one of the Jeeves’ novels where Anatole after work unwinding is rudely interrupted by the ungainly sight of Wooster teetering outside his window. And who can forget the mastery and cunning with which Jeeves persuades Wooster to get rid of his pride, an unattractive moustache.

Sample this gem of telegraphic exchange between Wooster and his Aunt Dahlia Travers, who stays near Market Snodsbury (really, how does he come up with these names) in Right Ho, Jeeves. Bertie has just returned has just returned home after spending nearly two months with the said aunt and therefore is perplexed when he get the following wire:

Aunt Dahlia: Come at once. Travers.

Wooster: Perplexed. Explain. Bertie.

Aunt Dahlia: What on earth is there to be perplexed about, ass? Come at once. Travers.

Wooster: How do you mean come at once? Regards. Bertie.

Aunt Dahlia: I mean come at once, you maddening half‑wit. What did you think I meant? Come at once or expect an aunt's curse first post tomorrow. Love. Travers.

Wooster: When you say “Come” do you mean “Come to Brinkley Court”? And when you say “At once” do you mean “At once”? Fogged. At a loss. All the best. Bertie.

Aunt Dahlia: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. It doesn't matter whether you understand or not. You just come at once, as I tell you, and for heaven's sake stop this back‑chat. Do you think I am made of money that I can afford to send you telegrams every ten minutes. Stop being a fathead and come immediately. Love. Travers.

Honestly, when I read these books I can barely restrain myself from laughing-out aloud. The books are such a refreshing change from the slap-stick humour which abounds in today’s world – be it movies (remember the David Dhawan – Govinda presentations) or in writing. Sarcasm has replaced genuine humour. Most people seem to find only poking fun at others funny. Not that Wodehouse does not do that but it is done with such good-nature and warmth that you cannot help but bask in the ‘sunlit perfection’ as Stephen Fry calls Wodehouse’s world.

If you have never read a Wodehouse, you don’t know what you are missing. As for me, I have upon me the delightful urge to read them all over again. And this time, I would buy them for my collection.


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