Friday, April 20, 2012

Faceless Friends, Fleeting Familiarity

What do I call this post? A thought, a musing or the beginning of a debate? You my friends have to decide what this has to be..I shall call it a sneak peek into what my life currently is - a commentary of what I feel and react to...and perhaps, because I am the your regular girl-next-door, this could be the story of many like me.

My world is the same one that you inhabit, but my human interactions ( and soon you will realise why I use such a technical term) have reduced to a point where it sometimes concerns me... On most days, the only thing that constantly talks to me is the television - left ON most of the time for the prime purpose of talking to me ( not entertaining me, mind you, I rarely even glance at whether news or a show is playing). While I was a busy broadcast journalist, talking televisions were a work hazard or rather a necessity. Now that I work from home, mostly in my pajamas, they are a force of habit and a comforting, familiar presence.

The only face-to-face human contact I have are with my cook, who arrives at sharp 8.15AM in the morning for forty minutes. If I have had a late night working, then all I do is open the door, mumble what she could possibly cook for me and return to my snug bed - she knows her routine pat and does not disturb my sleep but leaves quietly afterwards, shutting the door behind her. My maid comes around 10.30AM, by then I'm up and about and usually already settled on my beanbag with my laptop, wading through the mails that have arrived in the eight hours since I last checked mail! And then there's the poor, long-suffering sister - as if I wasn't enough to weigh her down, her work takes her out of the house by 9 in the morning and only lets her drag her bedraggled self back home late at night, by which time all she wants is to crash. So much for human interactions!

So then does that make me deprived? Not really, most part of my day is lived on the internet. My friends call me garrulous, I can squeeze in ten words in under five seconds. And my vocal chords aren't overworked - my fingers are and my keyboard shows distinct wear and tear. I cry, laugh, pout, leap with joy and love using just a few punctuation symbols - did you know colons, semi-colons and random alphabets could be mirrors to your mood?? :-) ;-) :-)

My emotions and longings, my relationships- love, lust, heart-to-hearts, counselling are all laid-bare over skype, g-chat and what would I do without Facebook?? Funnily for a journalist, the mobile phone is really not my preferred mode for communication. I'd any day choose a skype chat through the laptop over talking for hours on the phone or for that matter living life via SMS. 

My close friends are spread across the country and the world, there are just a few who are in the same city as me, the others are in Delhi, UK and the US - I share more of a virtual relationship with all - thanks to clashing work hours and the physical distance and more importantly, the few hours that now constitute off-hours (for them and for me)!! A number of people who were acquaintances and smile-when-you-run-into-them kind of friends while at school, college or work now know more about me and are in tune with the thoughts running through my head, thanks to my virtual personality. Funnily, the hitch is when they think they know me and are trigger-happy to make value-judgements on how I live my life or relate to my world around me. And that's when the hackles rise, tempers fray and the need to dish out liberal doses of sarcasm tinged with censure takes over. Imagine the irony of life, when your effort at sarcasm rebounds back at you with LoLs( Laugh Out Loud for the lazy typers) and ROFLMAO (Roll On the Floor Laugh My Ass Off!!)  

These days, I have a new love - online games - no gunfights or treasure hunts mind you! But Scrabble and Pictionary and Word Games. Now this is the confession bit, I don't play games on Facebook like a number of my friends. That to me, is too public because Facebook believes in notifying all and sundry what I'm upto. Now I could be jobless and looking for a diversion, but my 'friends', close and otherwise don't need to know that, do they?? So I seek out like-minded strangers, who are willing to play a surreptitious game of Scrabble online with me, on the phone or on the Facebook through a different id..So these days, as soon as I wake up,  I look for Jenny's ping or Slobiiii to come online to play their turn. I don't even know whether they are men or women. It does not matter. These two draw very well, so its easier for me to play Draw Free with them. I don't like Maddox much - very rude when I don't understand the drawings and a spoilsport, who often writes out the word when he/she can't think enough to draw it. But then, in the next round, along with the picture clues, there's often a Sorry that is posted...that is a connect - with a nameless faceless person on the other end of a computer or iPhone. There are a couple of cheats who play Word Games with me too...Aaah..let's not get into that contentious topic!!

That virtual connect makes up for the lack of cousins and aunts and uncles and colleagues and neighbours having a regular stake in my life. These faceless virtual friends are convenient too - antiseptic. If they don't know me, they can't interfere in my life can they?? My interactions are increasingly getting anonymous, however, my private life has never been more in the public eye - thanks to a life lived largely on the internet.
Where do I head from here? Where do you head from here??

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Smell of Home

I can't remember the last time I took the train from Mumbai to Kochi- it has been well over ten years, if my mental arithmetic is anything to go by. However, most Malayalis would agree with me that there is a distinct tang of greenery and a dew-soaked freshness to the air as the train moves across the Tamil Nadu border into Palakkad in Kerala before chugging along to Kochi and further south. That first deep drawing of breath heralds the beginning of a vacation, just the same way that the acridness in air as Palakkad is left behind draws the curtains on a break that always feel like it sped away on rollerblades.

These days the sight of the expansive carpet of greenery from the cubbyhole window of a plane gives me that kick of homecoming...and makes me realise what the call of the blood means. There are a myriad things that I can crib about my homeland, but that sense of absolute love that overtakes me, that sense of belonging that says 'Love Me Hate Me But You Cannot Forsake Me'. There are a few distinct smells that you cannot but miss in Kerala. Each smell triggers off a childhood memory, a vignette, a reason to smile and reminisce...

My flight from Mumbai this time, was literally at the crack of dawn, I flew with the Sun, chasing the night light away and soaking in the red, pink and orange streaks of the breaking dawn that mixed in an ethereal way with the diluted blues of the midnight. By the time I landed in Kochi, it was reasonably early, at least by my standards that dub morning as any time after 9. That's why as I sleep-walked into the restroom at the Kochi airport, the first smell of familiarity that assailed me also woke me up.

The woman who kept the rooms spotlessly clean, had the look of a traditional Malayali woman, scrubbed and bathed, with sandal paste and red kumkum on her forehead and curly black hair glistening with coconut oil. Now this coconut oil that Malayali women specially temper at home called kaachiya enna does not smell like your regular bottle of Parachute coconut oil. This oil is a potent brew of coconut oil with several other herbs that exude a smell that can identify you as a Malayali at a distance even at the Kumbh Mela. I gave her my best morning sleepy smile, she must have wondered if I had a few screws jolted in the plane ride..But the smell took me back to those bus rides to college in the morning rush hour when packed like sardines, we'd stand on barely a leg for the best part of half an hour, with our noses barely an inch away from someone's freshly washed and oiled hair.

These days, the sanitised confines of dad's AC sedan means that there are few outdoor smells that percolate in. There used to be a time when the trip from the airport to home would be liberally sprinkled with generous gulps of breath sucked in to retain the aroma as we pass by unlike in other cities, bakeries are not really places where they bake stuff, but they merely sell baked stuff and confectioneries made elsewhere. But a few of the bigger, older ones have huge vats of coconut oil constantly on the boil just outside the shop, into which practised hands expertly slice in raw bananas before scooping out those yummy banana chips. Our noses are by now habituated to smelling out fresh oil and stale chips. It is an art and once you perfect it, your reputation back in the city you live in is guaranteed to soar among friends. For, they often grudginly allow you to take a break on the condition that giant parcels of banana chips return with you...Well-made chips are little crisps of divinity...and damn the cholesterol scare or the calories menace..

Banana chips, apart, there is the smell of tapioca frying or jackfruit frying. The Malayalis reading this would by now be drooling. The smell is inexplicably nostalgia invoking..and then the craving can only be satiated by biting into a crisp chip. While I'm no fan of the smell of a thoroughly marinated piece of fish or meat crispening in hot curry-leaves tempered oil, I'd be a bad commentator of the smells of home, if I don't make a mention of it.

Hmmm, talking of food, have you smelt mangoes ripening? April the season for sultry heat and the smell of mangoes ripening in the air..This year, Dad has lovingly nurtured little bundles of nectar in our garden. He talks to them, coaxes them to grow healthy, battling pests that are keen to make merry and leave us shortchanged.. I think the assault on the senses, especially that of smell cannot be a single post..But I'd love to leave you with another secret joy...

Mamma's garden has several plants that you'd hardly find in a dusty urban jungle like Mumbai. Soon after a cooling evening shower, just as the aroma of the earth rises into the air, there is something to be said for walking on the spongy, wet ground, disturbing the raindrops that the leaves have trapped within them. Rub a few of the leaves between your hands, and the fragrance that nature leaves behind on your hands...:) 

Sometimes, it takes distance to make the heart grow fonder...Sometimes, it takes a gentle trip down the memory lanes of smell to recapture lost moments of childhood..

(P:S All the photographs are mine and I don't think stealing is a good idea..though if you want to use it, credit it..:)


Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Forgotten People of Bhaktapur


The majesty of the Himalayas need to be experienced to be even savoured while describing it...As my flight neared Nepal, the white, serenely beautiful range of mountains materialised as if out of nowhere, perched amidst the clouds with little else from the earth for company...

For a moment, I rued that the camera's lens can never match the beauty that the human eye sees. However, my imagination crash-landed into reality on landing at Kathmandu and later as our pickup traversed dusty unpaved roads that criss-crossed kachcha houses towards one of the few star-hotels of the city. By then I had mentally decided that my stay in the Himalayan Kingdom could not end within the luxurious confines of the hotel and the false sense of decadence it lent to my first impressions of the country. 

So when a couple of friends suggested a visit to Bhaktapur, I leapt at the chance. Bhaktapur was the capital of Nepal once, I'm told, during the reign of the Malla kings till about the late fifteenth century. Walking into this world heritage site was much like stepping into a time warp.  I wish there was an easier way to describe the scale of architectural splendour that Bhaktapur proudly claims as its own. For, unless I explain the splendour, I cannot give you a sense of the struggle life must be for those that live and eke out a living in that mausoleum of royalty. 

Turn your camera in any direction and you are offered an exquisite frame. Temples, pagodas, shikharas - Hinduism and Buddhism melt symbiotically into one another, into a blend that only the Nepalese understand. Little has changed, except for the single lines of electricity wires untidily criss-crossing the skies and snaking into houses through the elaborately carved latticed windows. The grandeur of these speak about a prosperous past, but the little done for its maintenance and the dirty tattered curtains that flutter about speak of an abject poverty - about life struggling to keep its head afloat amongst the glorious ruins of a royal past.
As you walk into the majestically vast expanses of the Durbar Square, the dragons guarding the gates appear cold even in the hot merciless sun, stony in their perusal of the gawky tourists invading their grounds. The local population have largely learnt to ignore the invasion of their privacy, the constant clicks of camera shutters focussed on their doors and windows, voyeuristically capturing their daily lives - from the vegetables they eat to the clothes they wear. Equally insouciant are the flies that hover about...flitting from the heaped garbage here and there straight on to the faces of the mammoth dragons guarding every building in the vicinity. 
If they could talk they would have narrated their years of glory, soaked in the knowledge of their importance and relevance, and also of the sharp fall from grace as Bhaktapur gave way to Kathmandu as the capital - slowly slipping off the radar completely till UNESCO rescued the city from oblivion, marking it as a World Heritage Site. 

 Tourism, for the locals of Bhaktapur is the only way of life, this is a city that the tourists keep afloat. Every shop has roughly the same wares - while some have cheap trinkets, masks and souvenirs, the others make a killing on the soft as a cloud Pashmina. I must say I came back much more knowledgeable about Pashminas and far lighter in the wallet too...but that's besides the point. 

The narrow alleyways that once housed prosperous merchants now are barely functional residences, with their fronts converted into roadside stalls. I wonder if there is a fixed price for anything across Nepal, Bhaktapur was no different. The same woman that sold me a Buddha statue and a pair of earrings for about three fifty Indian rupees fleeced another for cheap earrings for about a thousand rupees. And she did it without batting an eyelid! 
Bargaining is the only way out, but somewhere you wonder if the value of the trinket that you coveted wasn't too cheapened by the ruthlessness of the trade. Then again, I guess, when survival boils down to a few rupees cajoled here and there, ethical selling is the last thought on the shopkeeper's mind too. If you are gullible, you are the fool. 

 The slaps of bright paint advertising Coca Cola appear rather incongruous, like an assault on the landscape that has largely changed little. The rickety boards that advertise 'Internet Cafe with lightning speeds' in dark pigeon-holed rooms deep inside the walled city leaves you with bubbles of incredulous laughter threatening to erupt. These are chords of dissonance - the attempt by the twenty first century world to make its presence felt in the forgotten metropolis. 

 As the sun climbed higher and the fatigue began to dim the need to explore the hidden alleyways, we sought 'modernity' - a cafe that wasn't in darkness, that could offer a modicum of hygiene and perhaps clean, western loos. The relief that we felt when we chanced upon one such is indescribable. Calling it quaint and charming now sounds hypocritical, for it had toilet paper and coffee machines churning out cappuccinos and moccachinos. Ohh and did I mention free wi-fi? As I sat in the cafe, sipping my coffee and re-connecting with the civilisation that seemed lightyears away, the sound track playing in my mind was the much stereotyped Dum Maaro Dum and Kaanchi Re Kaanchi Re from the film that made Nepal famous on the Indian silver screen - Hare Rama Hare Krishna... 

I was the quintessential tourist, intruding into every corner that I could, exploiting the lost splendour of a once proud city and its inhabitants. Today they are voiceless as I invade their privacy and thrust cameras in their face as if they were in a living zoo and in exchange throw a few rupees their way. I haggle my way, look for cheap bargains and consider everything overpriced. I am not proud, I was the tourist and this is how tourists behave. Each local calls himself a guide and offers his services for a hundred cheaper than what was quoted by the earlier person that approached you. I wait for the dirt-cheap offer and finally decide I could just read it all off the wikipedia.  
 As I leave Bhaktapur hours later, my van kicks up a massive cloud of dust. I cover my face and hide my eyes behind sunglasses. But a terrible sense of unease tells me if I were to visit this forgotten city ten years from now, little would have changed, except for maybe an odd daub of paint here or there.


Monday, April 02, 2012

A Shoe Story - A Tale of Mamma and Me!

A few weeks ago, one of my favourite bloggers and also people ( though the second part precedes the first even if I haven't written it in that order)asked me what were the chances that I'd be a Guest Blogger on hers? Now, deep in the heart, I had little fireworks going off, because Cybernag is one of the better bloggers in the Indi-blogosphere currently. She reminds me so much of my Amma that very often my reaction to her posts are often responses I'd make to my own mother.

 Now when she asked me to write a post, I didn't have to think much. There was a story waiting to be told - of a woman who not only inspires me but completes me and without whom, to repeat the rather well-clobbered cliche, I wouldn't be in this world. Yes, so I'm also a card carrying member of the 'I Adore my Mother' community.

 I'd love for you to read the piece. It's not fair that I reproduce the entire piece here, so I shall leave you with a teaser and hope that you do read the post and as always I would love to hear your thoughts. The post is A Shoe Story . Please click on the title and you shall be transported instantaneously to Cybernag's blog.

Now here's the teaser I promised -

My mother was a Bata woman. Her only pair of footwear was sensible and lasted a long time. By contrast, I am a collector of shoes. Each pair that I own is worn after careful thought because it is an extension of my personality, a reflection of my mood, an assertion of my quirkiness and by virtue - my individuality.

Do do read the whole post. Here it is once again - A Shoe Story...

PS: Have I been away for so long that my Blogger setting looks like someone came and WordPressed their way through the site! I am not sure if it is just me or there are others who feel a bit disoriented too. As usual, my lame excuses can't extend to more than work..Oh and a bit of travel, which will continue through April too...I won't go for months on end like last year where I was just plain hibernating, that's a promise. Besides, what I am about to do over the coming months, is tell you about all the travel I have been doing and I have done a fair bit of it.