Friday, June 29, 2007

Another Birthday Message

Today's the little sister's eighteenth birthday. She has specially requested a post on/for her as a present. As I'm currently too broke to buy her anything else, I shall oblige. But I'm not going to write her a eulogy or anything, she isn't Prithviraj Chauhan after all. I gave some amount of thought to what I should write, and I figured that the things we both remember sometimes are the ones I want her to have on her birthday. So, Pinkerton, here are some memories. Enjoy.

I remember the day they brought her home from the hospital, swaddled in blankets, looking cross even while she was sleeping. They wouldn't let me hold her, which I greatly resented at that point, but I suppose in retrospect that handing over a newborn to a five year old isn't very wise. She was both a delight and a holy terror as an infant. When she was benevolent, she was quite a hoot. Otherwise there were times when she would wail her head off and only my dad could ger her to quiet down by rocking her to sleep in superfast express train fashion. When she was lowered into the big tub for her bath she would cry like someone was trying to drown her, then settle down in the water and gurgle with amusement, and repeat the wailing when you tried to get her out. My fondest memory of her infancy is one afternoon when my dad was home with both of us. I was trying to pat her to sleep, but she was clearly not interested, and as things turned out, my dad ended up putting me to sleep. Oh well.

We were great ones for all kinds of made up games when we were growing up. The most vivid recollection I have is of playing Vikram to her Betaal. She would dangle from these concrete bars on our terrace, and I'd take her on my back and roam around while she emitted her version of ghoulish laughter. She also came up with her own dance form which involved clambering on top of the harmonium and promptly falling off. Then there was weird dancing to weirder Hindi film songs, also on the terrace without caring as to who was watching and laughing, and when I call it dancing I'm using the word very liberally. The first day she marched off to school, she was all smartly turned out with blue skirt and white shirt and red ribbons and shiny black shoes and the works, only to come back home a half hour later, because kindergarten started the next day. Another character quirk I discovered was that she was afraid of everything. She'd cry if it started raining at night, and in Shillong, where it rains pretty much throughout the year, that's a recipe for psychosis. But she seems to have avoided that fate.

We grew up in our own ways and our own worlds, which diverged more as time went by, but we still manage to share a lot of laughs, most of them for no reason at all. When our lives were rocked by tremors, we managed to just about hold on, and we're still trying to fashion out our own versions of elusive happiness. It isn't really as hard or as bleak as I'd imagined it would be, because of one simple reason: whatever happened, we never let go of the laughter.

Now, Pinkerton, you're eighteen today. Have a great day, a great year and a wonderful life ahead. And if sometimes that looks a little difficult, just look back to that little girl who danced on the terrace with me all those years ago. Tough little tyke she was, and she'll make you happy whenever you go back to her. Happy Birthday, you're a good kid. Just stop running up monstrous phone bills.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Notes From A Homebody

I love coming back home. There's no other feeling that quite compares with the experience of entering Shillong city after the cab ride from Guwahati. Every time I come here I feel like I've been away for centuries, and I never, ever want to go back. The colours are fuller, everything has a richer texture, be it food, or drink, sleep, or rain. It just feels like more.

My grandma has been feeding me non-stop since I got here. She keeps telling me that I've wasted away to nothing and now I look like a plank of wood. I feel like a tragic figure in some terribly maudlin book every time she says that, but it has its compensations. She's been outdoing herself in the kitchen in a bid to fatten me up, and that is saying something.

The little sister is growing up, and trying her best to be complicated. I feel like telling her sometimes that its alright to be an adolescent while you're at the right age, instead of trying to get the whole world to take you seriously. There's enough time for that. And its always easier to get the world to laugh with you instead of sulking and hoping to be miraculously understood. But I suppose that life is a better teacher than anyone else can ever be.

I've realized that I'm essentially a domestic cow. No matter how far away I go, or what I do, I'll never really be at peace till I'm home again. Darn. I'd hoped that I'd turn out to be more interesting. Anyway, lunch awaits (masala stuffed fish...yummylicious), and I better get home before it starts to rain again and I get drenched. Toodle-oo!

Friday, June 15, 2007

I'm Writing, Yet Again

Third post in a week, and if you're thinking that I seriously need to get a life, you're probably right. Anyway, I have absolutely nothing to do, and it'll be two hours before The Sister gets back from work. Also, I realized that since we're leaving the guesthouse tomorrow, I won't have access to the righteous wi-fi network here anymore, so I may as well blog while its relatively easy.

And what do I want to say? Well, it rained here today, not half-hearted drizzle, but real rain. And its still nice and cloudy, hours after the rain stopped. Delhi does have its charms sometimes. I will miss it quite a bit, now that the Big Move to Bombay is more or less imminent. Its been quite an experience; these last five years in Delhi. College, University, Bachelor's, Master's, friends who became family, heat, food, drink, late nights, monuments, rain, little things, big things, walking, walking and walking, and so much talking. Phew.

The person in the room next to mine plays music really loud. Most of the time that isn't a very happy situation, but thankfully my anonymous neighbour has decent taste in music (no Himesh as yet). Speaking of Himesh, I cannot believe that anybody spent over a hundred crore rupees on making a film with a nasal, out of tune guy in a cap romancing a very toothy girl who may not even be legal age yet. Getting back, I was in the shower today (and one of you is about to ask for a video clip. Pray, don't, that joke has been dead and buried for some time now), when I heard this song. I haven't listened to it in ages, and yet it resonates in the lives of a lot of people I know right now. And I was also reminded of how much I love this song.

I've still got sand
In my shoes,
And I can't
Shake the thought of you.
I should get on,
Forget you,
But why would
I want to?
I know we've said
Goodbye,
Anything else would've
Been confused, but
I wanna see you
Again.
- Dido, "Sand In My Shoes".

This song is for all those of you who realize that sometimes, being stupid is the wiser choice to make. And those of you who've made that choice, and had enough integrity to admit it, you have my complete admiration.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Pak Conversations - X

This is the last one, and it took the longest. I'm so incredibly lazy that at times it manages to surprise me still. Anyway, here is what I remember.

The last couple of days in Pakland were spent shopping in Rawalpindi and going to see the old temples at Chakwal and Malhot. The latter was again, a half somnolent experience, as in, we slept all the way from Islamabad to Chakwal and all the way back. Its such an experience, I must say, sleeping peacefully as the car takes you through beautiful countryside and you wake up intermittently, look out of the window, smile and go back to sleep, as the driver plays his favourite soppy Bollywood numbers.

So, we got as far as Chakwal before our local police escorts showed up, which actually turned out to be a good thing, because they were the only ones to know the way to Malhot. Chakwal in itself was quite desolate, the temples in ruins from neglect.Apparently there used to be annual pilgrimages by Hindus from India in the past, but this was discontinued after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. I've been told that attempts are being made to revive the practice. Its funny how all-pervasive hate campaigns can be. As I was saying, it was quite hard for me to imagine this as a religious and intellectual hub, with a famous university where the legendary Alberuni is said to have stayed for a while. There was also a pool known as Shiva's Teardrop, which was murky with algae and dirt, but was a deep, clear blue at the source. We ourselves became something of a curiosity, and a small crowd of villagers gathered to watch us. I think they were hoping for a bit of drama, but the only dramatic thing which happened was that nature started issuing its summons to me yet again, to my utter despair.

We left Chakwal with two police jeeps in front, and stopped at a petrol pump on the way, so I could continue my humiliating tryst with the public restrooms in Pakistan, and the spooks could write about it in their report. A made great use of the opportunity, however, and took pictures of a very ornately painted Pakistani truck, with the regulation Elvis puff, which literally looked like the essence of colour had exploded on it. We then finally got on the road to Malhot, which may rightfully claim its place among the scary bloodcurdling rides that weirdos pay to ride at amusement parks. I screamed a little bit, mostly in my head.

Once we got to Malhot, we had to trek over an area covered with smooth, white stones for about ten minutes. It isn't very easy to walk, swaddled in thermals and wearing salwar kameezes, let alone trek, but I'm proud to say that we managed. And once we reached, we realized that it was completely worth the effort, and more. More than the temples, it was the astounding view that took my breath away. One could see the entire span of the Jhelum plains, with the Islamabad highway on the horizon. It was very high, and very cold. We walked all around the cliff, which petrified R completely. She doesn't seem to like heights very much, or the idea of other people liking heights. We sat there for a while, drinking in the solitude, the peace and the incredible dry beauty of the place. One of the spooks had gotten his kids with him, and they seemed to be having a good time too. Then it was time to get back, and we promptly nodded off again.

The last trip we made was to Rawalpindi, to do a final bit of shopping. The shopping itself was quite nice, we made some good buys. The only jarring thing was a conversation R and I had with a shopkeeper who turned out to be the Pakistani version of the sticky, fawning lech. This is how it went: -

Sticky, Fawning Lech (SFL): - Madam, what is your name?
Me: - So-and-so.
SFL: - oh, how beautiful, just like you....
Me: - Eh? Hehehe...erm..ehehehe.
SFL: - Here's my card, and my number. Please call when you get back.
Me and R: - Of course...*simper*
SFL (with an inspired gleam in his eyes): - Or maybe I can have your numbers, so I can call you, and if you want anything from here, I'll send it, of course.....
Me and R: - We don't have phones, you see, we live in a hostel.
SFL (crestfallen): - Oh....But please, do call me.
Me: - Of course, as soon as we get back.
My thought bubble: - Yeah right, moron. Like there aren't enough creeps in India.

Anyway, we made our hasty exits, and I bought just one little piece of cloth from him. Then there were tons of shoes and dry fruit to be bought, a final taxi ride back to Islamabad with way too many people in for comfort, and some more emporium shopping in Islamabad itself. We're incurable, I tell you.

The next morning we left early, after I snapped rudely at poor T who tried to wake me up using the disastrous tactic of shaking me by my shoulder. I hate that. It was a long trip, from Islamabad to Pindi, and then to Lahore, and back to Wagah. We slept through it all, and at Wagah, R tried to pay the coolie the money intended for the taxi driver, while we wondered. The coolie stared at R, R stared back, we stared at R and the taxi driver stared at all of us in turn. Then the customs officials when through our mounds of shopping, and R's tactic of putting her fake antiques in her sleeping bag did manage to half convince one of them that we were more than met the eye. At the border, the same guard welcomed us back, asked if we'd eaten well. T, who's the shortest one among us, then dropped her passport at the feet of the 7 foot plus, and very amused, guard.

The feeling that I got on crossing the border was indescribable. No more dupatta bondage, I could burn it if I wanted. We watched the border closing ceremony, whooped and cheered loudly, even though we aren't fervent nationalists. Its the ambience, sucks you right in. We gave our friend from the dhaba the bangles he'd requested for his sister, and took a cab to Amritsar, where we had to wait for hours in a dirty, smelly waiting room for our train. Welcome home. In the train, at midnight, R and T gave me a bar of chocolate to cut instead of cake, to ring in my twenty-third birthday. I love you guys.

So, it was one heck of a trip. I left a big chunk of my heart in Pakistan, and it'll always hold a special place in my life as the first stamp on my passport. I hope to go back someday, and see the western part of the country. And now I can stop feeling stupid about not having completed the series.

P.S.: - My grandmother has asked me to make a list of the things I want her to cook for me when I go home next week. I love grandmas, and I'll be getting fat soon. Yay!

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Rare Pleasure

I have read and loved books for as long as I can consciously recall. It has been an obsession with me, the written word. When I was a wee babe (almost), I even used to read the newspaper-made paper bags that the shopping used to come in. My mother was always slightly worried about that. So, its been a while since then, and I have moved on from shopping bags to books and blogs. A lot of blogs have surprised me, for a lot of reasons. Some are so astonishingly powerful and well written that they make me stare at the screen for about ten minutes after I've finished reading. Others are like this one; incredibly self-indulgent, but I figure there's no better place to indulge one's own poor self than on one's blog. Some are hilarious by intent, others by accident. I prefer the latter variety, the first kind always manages to intimidate me. One particular blog sorely reminds me of myself when I was seventeen, so I check it regularly to feel better about myself. There was even this one guy who put up sixty posts in a day, I kid you not, to get into the record books. 'Twas a sad day when I came across that particular one. Also, there's nothing quite like the high you get on seeing your words, your thoughts out there, open to the whole world, on your own terms.

About books, the affair grows stronger with age, although my 'type' has changed. At one particular job interview, I was asked about the kind of books I read, so I rattled off my usual list: Wodehouse, Pratchett, Tagore, Marquez, Tolstoy and so on. The gentleman then asked if wry humour was my preferred kind, to which I retorted that seeing someone slip on a banana peel was enough to make me laugh. He looked slightly disappointed at my lack of taste and finesse.

Lately, though, one particular author has been growing on me. No one writes about ennui quite like Rohinton Mistry. I have rarely seen a pen that evokes so easily the dust and dirt of everday life. The empathy is real, as is the pain at the inexorability of decay. I have been unable to finish reading A Fine Balance for two months now, because I'm too afraid to go on. I'm giving it another shot, though. It amazes me, the way he just weaves such seamless narratives about ordinary people and ordinary situations that somehow manage to transcend the ordinary and become something almost poetic in his narrative. I know its quite a weird thing to say, but I've always wanted to be able to write in a way that can make people cry, although I inadvertently and inevitably produce the opposite effect on those who read what occupies this space. He manages, though, and quite well. I remember the very surprised tears I shed reading about the reality of caste violence in India, thinking about the immediacy of it and the absolute tragedy of it in ways that I'd never imagined before. We mostly know what to believe in. Caste is unnecessary, religious hatred is evil; truisms that we keep holding on to in a bid to make sense of the chaos around us. But very few of us actually manage to understand exactly why it is necessary to believe in such things, and why the survival of the civil society that we take for granted depends on it. Also, the depth of compassion that I feel in this gentleman's writing never ceases to move me. I haven't yet come across a character that was rudely or singularly etched; every person had texture, history, some sort of humanity.

Like I said, 'twas a rare pleasure.

P.S.: - Lights will guide you home,
And ignite your bones,
And I will try
To fix you.
- Coldplay

Don't ask why, I don't know either.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Mumbai Minutes

I realize that this blog has been so full of travel accounts lately that it may give people the impression that I lead a very full and exciting life, zipping around all over the country. Sorry to dispel that happy impression, but I don't. Its just that life is suddenly compensating all at once for the utter boredom of the last couple of decades, and suddenly there has been a surfeit of trips and vacations. I'd like to think that I've earned it. If you don't agree, you're not honour-bound to let me know.

So, Bombay. Whoa. I really don't know why I came back to Delhi. The flavour seems to have gone out of my life here. Don't worry, that's just another way of saying that I had a really, really great time there. Let me tell you about a few of the highlights and the lowlights. You can figure out which is which.

Bombay at night, from the window of your plane, is beyond exquisite. Its like the setting for the mythical Perfect Wedding; festive but not garish, geometrically right somehow, waves lapping all around. The smell of the city makes me nostalgic for dry fish chutney, which is strange because the very same smell makes most new arrivals gag. Actually, any East Bong with a partiality towards dry fish would feel right at home here. The Brother's apartment in Dadar, with a view of the sea, was just right. It was sunny, and pleasant, white and yellow and orange, happy colours for happiness, and a strange sense of contentment. Even so, the rents are crazy.

Meeting people (bloggers actually) was never quite so much fun. There was coffee, and movies at Regal (very nice, I thought), sumptuous meals, a wee tipple for the tippler in me, bike rides along Marine Drive in the evening (WOW!) and in the rain, when the first pre-monsoon showers hit Bombay, my first guitar lesson, the only one so far, the Gateway of India....etc.

Then there was the food. I shall now provide a list of the very nice establishments and their equally great fare. That city is right after a foodie's heart. So, there was Chinatown, Jai Jawan stall (best prawns ever), Santoor (very nice methi and peas dish), Cafe Mocambo (sigh, the pasta, and sigh, the double chocolate torte), Spaghetti Kitchen (where I discovered that I like squid), Cafe Leopold (good food, but its so hot in there), Goa Portuguesa/ Culture Curry (upon my word, Rajnikanth coasters, yummy prawns, very nice cranberry juice, muahahaha, and even a quaint Goan singer with palm trees painted on his guitar, and a smiling moustachioed police officer's face on the bill. One of their customer feedback forms now says that his/her favourite dish/drink is Scarlett Johansson. Oops.), Tamnak Thai (nice establishment, but I'm not really Thai at heart, as I discovered), Theobroma (such cheesecake, but they'd run out of icecream when I got there. Another one of those subtle irony things), and Hard Rock Cafe (which has atmosphere, some nice memorabilia, and a very nice Long Beach Iced Tea, after imbibing which I was merrily explaining to Kitkat the difference between a hic and a hic-ee), and Amici's (of the melt in your mouth gelatos, the fellow with the World Scrabble Championship t-shirt and the bickering couple), and your regulation Baristas and Smokin Joes and Cafe Coffee Days etc. I feel so replete.

There were also job interviews, where I was mostly trying to make sense out of myself, and discovered that sense is rather elusive. Let's just say that giving interviews will ruin atleast two out of your fourteen vacation days. Three, if you're the kind whose nerves think that jumping around in gay abandon is what they should do on vacation.

There were also the tiny tots, Kitkat's cousins, who are the most adorable little things. The elder one loves to dance, and the younger one loves to ask "Kyun?". One is six years old, the other is two. The little one promptly adopted me fifteen minutes after we met, jumped on me once every twenty minutes, gave me a lot of imaginary money, and when I was leaving, clambered onto my lap to ask, "Aap laapash (waapas) aaoge?". I replied that I didn't know, to which she promptly retorted, "Kyun?"

One night when I was leaving for dinner, I passed one of the men living downstairs in one of those teeny roomlets. He was sitting on a broken down scooter, singing away to the night. He was rather...bald. And when I passed him by, he turned to me and yodelled soulfully. I didn't make the appropriate response then, so I shall do so now. Teehee.

This trip was also the culmination of years of planning to holiday with Kitkat, PS and SKT, and we all sorely missed RR, especially when we were dropping or spilling anything. We discovered that PS makes a mean pasta and cannot be subtle, SKT gets homesick very very soon, and Kitkat is a rather nice control freak. We also discovered that we can cook some, but the main trick with pasta is to boil it. Thoroughly. Sigh.

Finally, Bombay is a shopper's paradise. Carry lots of money when you go there. The sea is dirty but soak your feet anyway, till they start itching. Its worth the risk to feel the waves dragging the sand out from under your feet, and squealing in surprise, every single time.

Now, the vote of thanks. Thanks you R Bhaiyya, for the hospitality and the riot of restaurants, thank you Brick for all the fun, and for having a bike and for being a sentimental fool who came all the way to the airport to say goodbye for half a minute, thank you Raghu, because you're 'berry likeable' too, as long as you don't text me at four a.m., thank you n.g., provider of interviews and whiskey samples and tiramisu flavoured gelatos, thank you, nice HR lady, for being good to me when I was quaking in my boots (figuratively), thank you, bald guy, for the amusement, thank you, parlour lady, for the wonderful haircut, and whoever I forgot and therefore omitted, I'm like that, but thanks anyway. Now back to life.

P.S.:- I omitted some lowlights, which I shall now include. I didn't have any mangoes, coz I didn't have the money or the time. I didn't ride the ferris wheel at the beach either. I shall also have to leave Cafe Churchill for the future. Also, I now figure, that if any place has given you sadness, or bad memories, or general heartache, its a great idea to reclaim that place and colour it in the shades of pleasantness again. It worked for me, it did. I can claim to like Bombay again.