Now there are many books that I’ve already read this year. Some moved me deeply; others had an atmosphere, a strong storyline, characters that call out to you, and ones that speak in your head with clear voices, a plot that has a crescendo, and then ones that paint visual images across a board, that stay with you forever. This one had it all. The difference lay in the fact that it started slow, at first capturing an air, a melody that was essentially Sri Lanko-tamil. I’d rather a novel start slow and then build its way into your heart and mind, than start with a bang and end with a whimper. This one gathered pace, like a building storm, and then whirled around my head in its humid Sri Lankan air, weaving it all just right. It was a read that has stayed with me, with the country it projects. I am writing this review after a month of completion of Shyam Selvadurai’s debut novel.
A funny boy is a coming of age novel. It is not just that, set, as it is, against the backdrop of a troubled Sri Lanka, and realistically builds the strife-ridden scenario, quite seamlessly into the story of a young boy, who’s different. That is clear from the start, but what the difference is, comes into focus much later, and very sensuously too. Little is said, and much is derived. It draws you in very gradually, and then you know. Your heart beats hard, as you read on, the gradual development of young Arjie, and the blossoming of his self-awareness.
Arjie, in fact, tells the story.
All names in the novel are quaint, as they are authentic. The humour with which certain episodes are recounted, are written with a flair, as those where there is bereavement, grief of untimely death, the loss of a secret loved one. The writing is exquisite, in as much detail as required to get the reader hooked. I certainly was.
Arjie’s is a Tamil family, living in Sri Lanka in peace and harmony, till the situation erupts and spiralling out of control, snatching so much of one’s identity with it. Who is one after all, one might ask- the country or the genetic makeup- or are they really apart? Or perhaps, they can both reside in peace in a person, until one is told otherwise. For a child- the differences are few, if any. The relationship Arjie shares with an aunt, which later transforms, is telling of this fact, and Selvadurai deftly uses his characters to showcase this dilemma many must face as Tamil Srilankans.
Every person has a rightful place, a well-etched visage and character. Every chapter nudges the story a little ahead. In one chapter, ‘Small Choices’, Arjie’s father is forced to take in an old friend’s son, whom he grows to trust and love. The story hereon, takes a very interesting turn, and we get an insight into the underbelly of the strife between Tamils and Sri Lankans. This is a part I enjoyed very much, among others, even as it made me squirm, and wish for the story to surge ahead, which it did. I knew something was amiss, I knew there was some action about to unfurl upon me, and it would be pivotal in taking the fate of the family to its predictable place. It did!
This is not a sad novel. It’s a tale well told. Selvadurai has lived the story even as he has recounted it with truth and precision. If one enjoys a good story, and a great ambience, this one is a fabulous read, be it on an armchair, or on a trip aboard a ship or an aircraft. I read it seated on a bench by a roadside, and then completed it in an airport, where I had four hours to kill.
I spent over a fortnight in Philly, and what has moved me above all, was the Über driver, male or female, each one with a story, each living a life of value, in the car driven. My daughter, Ambika, and I have had some worthwhile conversations with many, if not most.
I shall begin with the one, and the only one I can relate verbatim since it’s überfresh! It had me gripping my sides this morning as I boarded the cab to Terminal D of Philadelphia airport, over an hour back.
“Mornin’, how are you this morning?”
“Good, good, off home today, so mixed feelings.”
“Leaving my daughter, and well…you know, home.”
“O I say!” (see)
“Where you fom?” “India.”
“Dat like a city, like Philly, or….?” Über-perplexed.
“Right.” I smile, but no judgment. “Actually it’s a massive country and Delhi’s the capital, like DC ….” Pause. I allow him to take in this fact.
“Dat right? Mounnains, harrbourrs?”
“Not Delhi, but India has plenny,” say I forcefully, losing him here I’m thinking.
“Da’ right? Good.”
“Ya, betcha, fabulous!” in American say I.
“You got wifi?” I ask, not sure why.
“Everyone got wifi, I don unnerstand why people ask me dat. Philly got wifi.”
I smile again, feeling silly.
“So where you originally from?” Changing track.
“I’m fraam Philly, I am, and no one can take that away fraam me, I love de cidy, I juss love de cidy!” I’ve clearly touched a happy nerve.
“That’s good then. I’m a city girl too.” Silence. Did he care? A rock song plays. He’s a big guy, probably from the Bahamas, or wherever. I thought I’d heard him say, “like the Bahamas.”
“I don gedit, why people ask for wifi. The mobeel is with the wifi when you buy ‘em, so I don gedit!” He’s been pondering over my question. He’s been thinking. He’s one of those who stays puzzled till an answer that makes sense jumps out, if he can work it out. I did try explaining in my poor woman terms, but he couldn’t get his head round it.
We arrived. He took leave of me, and as he wished me a happy journey, he less than subtly told me that my bags were way too heavy, when he placed them on the pavement- “Good luck with dose!” and with a wave and a twinkle he drove off. I liked the guy’s simplicity. I’d enjoyed the short drive and his accent.
Another one from yesterday when Ambika and I undertook a longish drive back to the city with an Uberpool driver, was a young, muscular and well tattooed American. Ambi, in her best American accent struck up a conversation when he asked if we were mere visitors.
His story was not uncommon, that of leaving his studies and getting stuck in a job. He was from Atlantic City, a town we’d stopped by at, recently, on our way to Cape May. It’s essentially a gambler’s paradise, and he didn’t care either for his hometown’s moniker as Gambler’s Paradise, or for summer. He waited for summer to get over every year. Imagine that! He was Ubering because he needed money and had been in Philly for a month, and liked it so far. “Anywhere’s better than Atlantic City” he gruffly said.
“I am going to return to studying, a few credits at a time, I think.” We had by then, receded into the seats- barely there, and had him thinking aloud to himself. We could hear his mind’s wheels churning. A bloke in his mid-thirties could rethink his life, it was fascinating. (as one can tell from the information gathered). He wished us well when he dropped us off near City Centre.
We don’t ask names, they don’t tell us either. But they become people, and personalities, not just bobbing heads in front of us, carrying us back and forth from destinations. I’ve ridden over 25 Ubers during this trip if not more. Probably more, but I didn’t keep count.
A ride that was significant was one in Cape May, where an oldish lady, with frizzy grey hair and a kindly face signaled to us, through the rain, that she was our ride, and we, hers. A 20-minute drive, and this very chatty lady threw an important fact : she was the sister of the Mayor, no less! She thought we were locals from New Jersey. That I was a visiting mother, whose daughter had brought her to NJ’s Cape May for a break, lent her great joy, and she was deeply disappointed for us that it hadn’t been a sunny day. Her farthest destination had been Canada. She was terribly content at having been that far. The daughter and I, we smiled at each other knowingly- how far we had come.
Most of the cabbies have barely left the shores of their state, leave alone USA. It doesn’t cease to amaze me, ever. They are so comfortable and perhaps also not sure of what they’d discover across borders. They don’t read much. Car’s radio music, or even plain chatter is their constant companion, for better or worse.
There’s a tremor that takes hold of us humans, knowing that there’s a better life to be had, and it requires an effort to get there, sometimes it asks for sacrifice. Not many are willing to dive in, and risk it. It’s comfortable being in the Über zone, it’s familiar, it’s what one knows. The Über driver is different people, and among them, is one who is biding his time, waiting to plunge in. We’d met a few.
We chanced upon a beautiful Afro-American girl who was unhappy with Uber, the company, but drove on. The money was good, said she. She kept cussing under her breath, and we were amused, noting how she moved to the music that played on her radio, as she blamed Uber for her woes, and the traffic!
The driver, who used to live in California and thought it too expensive, liked it better in Philly too. He was clearly blessing the sky above him, for the opportunity to make money for his family. He sounded cheery and grateful.
“Ya, I lake’t here, lafe’s cheaper, and my wife’s hapey,” he chuckled.
Then there was a young guy, a student, who went to college at night, and his wife drove an Uber too. They had a dog, and an infant at home, so they took turns; love or something like it I reckon.
So many beautiful people out there Ubering, and innumerable number of folk that also got into the cabs with us. Every driver’s story had us thinking later. Many were under-grads, taking up jobs because their situation demanded it. Getting a driver’s licence is not difficult, and while driving can be tiresome, one of them summed it up well, “Oh I meet so many friendly and interesting passengers on my daily ride, I loooove this job of mine!” He had made this job sound wholesome, real and unpretentious. He wanted nothing more, and was probably twenty-something. What simplicity! It touched a chord.
One thing that is noteworthy is the greeting- unmistakable and on automation: “Hey, how’re you doin’ today?” It often ends there, but when it doesn’t, conversations happen. I was asked if I liked Philly, and if I were happy that our daughter was working in UPenn. What could I say, but the truth- that I loved that she was here, and not in NYU (getting a heavy nod of approval in response to this), and we loved visiting her here, again and again. The weather being as unpredictable as it is, made it that much more enticing.
Uber has changed and touched many lives- on both the passenger and the driver side. It certainly made our life really, really smooth, and when we weren’t walking, we were Ubering. I love how things transform, and since we all can’t be on the road in our cars, this is the next best thing ever. I thank every drive undertaken, because it enriched my mind with different ideas, very different lives, and even showcasing the secret to survival – this is how the human race thrives one way or another.
We had to do it. It is a tradition whenever my British pal, Mary comes a-visiting. I was doubtful. Did not want to spend any money, as I had nothing over and above my pocket money, helper salaries and petrol. She insisted we go. I dug deep into my pockets and discovered some old, forgotten notes. We flew, and we arrived in a sunny, welcoming environment, the entry point from Delhi, Jaipur, the Pink City. This was the first time I had conceded to flying to Jaipur, after all, it was down the road on our Highway 8, we could drive and be there in four hours. Of course, it’s always been over five, but it does seem possible when we set out in the wee hours of the morning. We’ve never actually managed to set off early enough. Wise decision it was to Air India it. The National Carrier flew on time, landed with a thump, rather hard, but we reached our little Jai Nivas, in less than four hours from the Gurgaon apartment. It doesn’t get faster than that. However, that’s where the speed stops. The rest of our trip was on slowmo.
The air at Jai Nivas bespoke complete lethargy. The garden, green and sunny, called out invitingly, and gently. We were given masala chai, the best ever, after half an hour of our demanding it. The room was large and airy; food, bland but ample; receptionist’s speech, a drawl. We had been welcomed and had nothing to worry about. We weren’t worried at all, why would we be? Well not yet, was how we felt. The service, in general, slow yet painfully cheerful, and later a visit to the Chameli bazaar, across the wide MI Road, was very laidback, wearing an air that breathed, ‘might be busy downtown, but here, it’s time to sit back and reap the fruits of our labour’. When did they labour? Anyhow, we also caught the drift and floated around, admiring the offerings on display in rather dusty panes. The shopkeepers watched us wanderers cheekily, I hasten to add, and barely moved a whisker to draw our attention. Yet our attention was drawn to this very odd and nonchalant display of apathy toward, what we might have well been, wealthy customers. Perhaps our own demeanour belied any signs of wealth. We weren’t dressed glamourously, nor did our rustic bags give off the perfume of well-stocked wallets.
On rushing back armed with beer, we discovered that our fridge was not working. It took all of an hour and a half of much inspection, followed by rigorous movement, followed by an equally dismal looking contraption that replaced its earlier cousin. It worked nevertheless, and we did enjoy chilled beer that night. Dinner was salty.
The following day, we left our abode at 11, since shops are slated to open around then. The traffic was snarly, and our auto driver was angry. He seemed irate to begin with, and then, another auto driver made the fatal mistake of crossing his path. That was it! He stopped bang in the middle of an overcrowded, dusty and misshapen main road to give an earful to this guy. Since I follow the Hindi spoken there, my ears burnt red from embarrassment, the choice of words were such. I don’t know quite understand why I should have been embarrassed, as my English friend understood none of it, though she sensed the rage. I had to command our auto driver to pipe down and carry on to the bazaar, without further delay. He was quivering with rage and dumped us outside a quilt shop. His nostrils flared like a bull’s, and I tried to imagine the real reason for such a display of uncontained temper. We even discussed it later at the shop. Perhaps the guy did not have too many customers, perhaps he was burdened with a housing loan, maybe he had lost money in a gambling spree, his wife’s cooking may be terrible, or that she was pregnant with their fifth child! Who knew what can get someone going, who knew!
The quilt store, a pretty shop, was divided by price tags, quality and designs. There were three men, and not one was a client. We felt special, by default. A wide array of designs were on display. Jaipuri quilts are very popular, and much in demand. Why was the shop empty? It was already around noon. In the meantime, we just had to point to one, and it was spread out in customary fashion, at our feet, to admire and fondle. An hour later, we were still undecided. Would my cook like this one, or that one? I was at a loss. What I liked, subtle pastels, he definitely would not. His instruction was – “Bhabhi, 4 ya 5 hazaar rupye ki moti razai lana meri maa ke liye, zyaada bhi chalega, kam nahin, gaon mey rehti hain” (Sisterinlaw, do buy a thick quilt for 4 or 5 thousand rupees, for my mother in the village, could cost more, but not less.). Now there was more than the dilemma of the pastels and subtleties, there was the element of the price. These were all around 3 thousand rupees, no more.
I whatsapped my mate at home, and asked him to share the designs, but not before I had discovered the velvet-covered quilts. To my vision they were quite ugly, but soft and thick, one of the cook’s demands. They still did not achieve the 4-5 thousand rupee status. Anyway, I got a response pretty quickly, and as suspected, he loved the velvety ones. The deal was made, and I bought a quilt for the cook’s mom!
No customers appeared, during our hour-long visit. We were served hand and foot by three men- one of whom was the owner. He spoke perfect English for the benefit of my friend Mary. The shop had an impressive display of bedcovers and sheets too, and Mary ended up picking up some of those as well. I am certain the shopkeeper was thrilled at having done brisk business. Yet, I kept wondering why the street, a main one at that, very close to Hawa Mahal, was devoid of tourists. Business seemed really, really slow.
As we emerged, we were accosted by many shopkeepers, all at once, asking us where we were from, and if our interest could be evoked by, bangles, jootis (Jaipuri shoes), kurtas, skirts, balloon trousers, harem pants, jewellery and so on and so forth. After the gentle treatment meted out to us at the quilt showroom, we felt assaulted, and ducked for cover in a nearby jeweler’s shop, that was small and where we were offered Italian espresso. The coffee was fabulous, but the shop owners had lured us with a price that did not hold. We left soon thereafter.
The sun had risen to its zenith, and it had turned pretty warm. As we rushed on, while the rest of the Jaipuri world seemed not bothered with the sun’s movements, we observed people drinking chai, chattering, languorous and lazy, discussing politics. Life seemed to follow an even trail here. Everyone was at ease with the slow pace of a small town, but for us.
We wanted to just be, observe and watch, however every once in a while, we would hear a shopkeeper shout out to us, albeit gently, “Only 100 rupees madam, only 200 rupees,” I did venture into a bangle shop and picked up a dozen, after bargaining it down. Again, we were the only customers. Although it was high season, in my understanding of Rajasthan’s tourism, there were too few tourists around us. It all seemed to have waned, or was it the wrong time of day?
We discovered, quite by chance, a rooftop restaurant, Wind View, rather aptly named. It afforded a wonderful view of the Hawa Mahal, and the ramparts of the Nahargarh fort. We ordered tea in terracotta cups, and joined the slow march of time. The breeze was cool, the tea, piping hot and spicy. We just sat and sipped our tea, quietly observing nibbling monkeys on rooftops, the gorgeous fort and tourists, yes, finally, tourists busy photographing the fort from the terrace of the Hawa Mahal. So there were people, after all, who toured Jaipur, apart from us!
We needed eardrops for Mary, so we stopped by at an Ayurvedic pharmacy.
On asking for these, the gentleman owner kept asking us to repeat our query, “hein, hein, kya chahiye?” Clearly he needed some himself, and we couldn’t keep down our giggles. Finally, we did manage to get across our need, by gesticulating and made ourselves understood.
All the laughing had made us quite hungry, and we undertood the march to the famous Lakshmi Mishthan Bhandar for lunch- which took us all of twenty-five minutes of crawling our way through chaotic traffic- pedestrians were clearly neither favoured nor tended to. There were hawkers, flower-sellers, auto rickshaws, cyclists, motorcyclists, with whom we fought for space on the road to reach a pavement, which was strewn with more vendors. What a crazy town! We had to watch our every step till we arrived at an over-crowded restaurant, but it was well worth it. It was cool, and the waiters were cheerful and served us fast, with excellent Indo-chinese- chilly paneer, veg chowmien and a stuffed onion kulcha for the Britisher! It was delicious, and was wolfed down with gusto! Fresh lime soda washed it all down, and we were two contented women. We did breathe easy indoors, whereas we should’ve been gulping down fresh air outdoors. Needless to say, that was not the case.
Back at Jai Nivas, after a nice shower, we sat out in the green garden, and sipped chilled beer and although we weren’t particularly hungry, we did order some stuffed paranthas for a late dinner, which weren’t half bad.
The quilt for the cook’s mom sat in our room, looking plump and ready to warm the lady up next winter. It had been the prize, and we had definitely had an eventful day, because after lunch, we decided to walk through the gulleys of Jaipur, crisscrossing and meandering along behind the main Johri Bazaar.
The slowness of Jaipur, was not in these gulleys. These were the lanes where business was brisk, yet gentle, and people swarmed. It was bursting with tourists, and locals alike, and we got a real taste of what I would deem the high season that Rajasthan lives during the months of winter. We were amused, yet careful of where we stepped. Pavements are not popular for pedestrians. You just walk. You place your foot where you find place. We were dusty and tired on our return, but the comfy, simple Jai Nivas, is ideal for such evenings. There were many guests, yet we found our place in the garden. Stretching our feet, we read till the natural light faded.
Jaipur is a delightful town, and has gotten busier over the years. One doesn’t tire of it easily, because there is newness in the familiarity of it. I don’t quite know why, but I’ve visited Jaipur a dozen times in the last four, five years, and on every trip, I discover a facet that I hadn’t noticed earlier. People remain warm, and welcoming, which is surprising really. I guess it’s the Rajasthan culture.
I will return again next year, with Mary, or with a bunch of friends, earlier. Another quilt perhaps, for us, or anyone demanding it of me.
Just three days, three gorgeous days in South Goa, and I carry back a whole year’s supply of mirth. The ambience gets on to your skin, in preparation for a relaxed spa-like vacation coming up, in the warmest and most playful way possible. There’s no place like Goa to unwind they say, and it’s true to the hilt. There’s that something in the air, as the monsoons trail along, playing hide and seek with your senses. The tall palms swaying head downward, bushes bursting with petrichor, and innumerable waterways wearing a luxuriant look, glamorous after dry Gurgaon, embrace your every pore, even before you land. The drive to your hotel courses through languorous countryside bathed in warm sunlight, that seems to belong to Goa alone. We stayed in the Benaulim area, and for the length of our stay drifted along alleyways and gulleys, like two impoverished souls, soaking it all in. Some of what our beings absorbed is right here, in a feeble attempt to capture its blossoms, its seafarer robes, its very essence, as we strolled and biked around like two Junkie hipsters, high on Goa!
Hibiscus abounds and thrives in the landscape
a large Carp kinda fish couldn’t care less about the rest of the world
‘Gud, rmmbr my msg – r dnnr- the pics? So tht’s de latest, in hngo’er state lol ’
‘Ya, I saw. Lovly n all. Wassup? ’
‘Uh, since last nite? Nthng yaar, tryin to catch sum sleeeeep- zzzzz. CYL. TTYL.’
And so on and so forth- a minute to minute catching up, sometimes less, sometimes with longer gaps. But what’s there to catch up with- we are in constant communication. There’s not much curiosity left, is there? What are we talking about anymore, where are we headed, what’s happening to us? These are some of the questions that assail me time and again, and I’m afraid of cutting myself off at the same time. I’ll miss out…but what is it exactly that I’ll miss out on? Unclear. The sad happy jokes? The woman-centric video-clips? And not just those, all the information-laden articles, and the wisdom being passed around every morning via a Good Morning! And a Rumi or a Shakespeare quote from the greats promptly accompanies the cheerful greeting. I like, and I smile back. And there are more wise folk out there, so often, the quotation is a simplistic one by an Anon. person. I like and I smile back with equal zeal.
And just by the way, I woke up at 6, had a cup of tea and made awesomely soft idlis with onion-tomato chutney. Served it up with a flourish, and then….but really now, do you need to know all this stuff about my daily routine? Nah. I suppose not. But I insist on telling you, coz I have this aching need to constantly share. Again, is it my need, or is it something I caught, you know, like a virus out there? Everyone’s sharing, be it on FB (‘I feel so tired today’- c’mon guys, some empathy please, or at least ask why), ‘The Metro sucks, and it hasn’t rained today’….yea, right, it sucks and it hasn’t rained, we all know it. It’s out there, all of it, and a lot of it sucks. One feels obliged to check the Like box, especially if it’s someone you want to have on your side to check your boxes too, haah!
Hang on, let me just put up a photograph of the road I traversed this morning, strewn with potholes and make a noteworthy statement of the rather ailing state of our state….it does make good copy.
Otherwise, honestly, there’s enough of enough that is quite all right. I love looking at photographs of scenaries and birds, trees and flowers, and see people enjoying their holidays, Oh I do. However, I don’t particularly like watching people in front of buildings, and in poor light especially. I enjoy poetry and writing, but not when it’s abysmally written, hankering for praise, accompanied by – well, let’s not go there shall we, not right now!
Surely should an anxiety get hold of me first thing in the morning –
“Shucks, I missed a wonderful quote today- how will I pass my day wisely now!” it would be frightfully wrong, would it not? This being besieged by a feeling of guilt and remorse, not okay. I haven’t wished back, what would my friends think of me?
So what’s it that drives us to constant communion? What’s this madness that has us in its hold? Why the need to be in the know of every movement of our friends, or non-friends and belong to a myriad groups that chatter incessantly. When there’s a quiet in-between this mindless chuckling, there’s a void felt- one is compelled to shake the mobile’s face – there’s something amiss, or we put it on and off, like a sparkling diamond, to verify that its shine is intact, and not fading with the passage of the hours. One wakes up to this faithful companion, having charged it to life, and then before shutting our eyes at night, we feel this craving to put in a last word- out there, so as to sleep in peace. But do we? In our sleep-state we are overcome by a myriad communications, said-unsaid. We are living in times that are overwrought with words, images, both moving and still. Can one safely conclude that we are over-communicating, over-reaching and over-dipping ourselves in the mire of ‘too much of a good thing’?
Benefits : we can be in touch with those far away from us, like our kids, our aging parents; we get to read some surprising thoughts & essays (seldom, but it is known to have happened), we are able to efficiently organize Ladies’ Night, and ensure that we don’t have to write the same message over and over; so far so good.
What else is good? Ah yes, the instant selfies and photographing…priceless.
Disadvantages : fewer surprises, less interesting stuff to share and an overriding need to outdo – be it in flavour, be it in humour, especially when it comes to reacting to whatever it is- fastest finger shows off a faster mind. And the emoticons- O lord, save my soul! I sit guilty of over-and mis-use of some very strange expressions and drawings. Many of us are. It replaces the word, and it sounds out the exclamation we would otherwise have used our vocal chords for. Wow! How does it get better than that!
It does, believe you me, it does. Not using them constantly will make them more meaningful and precious perhaps. I am yet to learn how not to. I am yet to understand how I got here, overzealously communicating day and night with people all over the world. I know I would save a few hours, were I to desist, and put them to far better use. Now what might that be, I do wonder, because, believe you me, I have this itch where I am fretting about how quickly I can finish this post, stick it on to my Blog, and share it via Facebook and Whatsapp and ….O all right, just these two for now. I’ve got to communicate my thoughts, and right about NOW! O the delicious tremor that seizes me as I imagine my world of people reading me and smiling, and shrugging their shoulders, saying, so what’s new? They will continue to ‘talk’ at a speed that both defies and defines time.
Is this going to change over the coming years? Are we going to embrace quietude and sometimes just go off the grid and become incommunicado? Do we really need to shed tears, or hair, or moods upon a screen- big or small? There are as many answers to these questions as there are people. Yet I have a sinking feeling that loneliness is on the rise, and the perils of communication are encouraging it, feeding it and permitting its dissemination like toxic weeds that grow unabated unless uprooted as quickly as they sprout.
Just saying :
Parthenium entered India with imported food grains in the mid-1950s. It is said to be one of the world’s seven most devastating and hazardous weeds and grows undeterred and wild left unchecked.
Facebook entered the world in 2004 and its invasion has transformed our world irretrievably.
Whatsapp was actively created in 2009, but it is in 2013 that it became really popular and had about 200 million active users and 50 staff members.
Some significant members of the Social Media Society :
There’s Snapchat- microblogging, Twitter (instant gratification via handles- what you write is instantly swallowed by the world and gregariously opined about), Instagram (more photographs anyone- photo-blog away!), Youtube (show off your own videos, – you name it, and watch short or long movies!), Pinterest (visual pinning of pictures/videos and follow others’ Pins), Tumblr (posts are living documents) etc. ….and social media is kept alive in its myriad forms by we the People.
And there we were, my man and I, ready to hit the road. Have car, will race, was the motto of my companion on our tour of Czech Republic – Prague, Bratislava (Slovakia), Budapest (Hungary) and Zagreb (Croatia). We were both raring to go, no doubt about that, after ten delightful days in Germany, we wanted to explore what lay on the east side of things. Needless to say, we did race at a 120 miles per hour as often as we could, stopping just once between countries to fill up.
Driving is charming when you have the quiet and exploring, curious mind. It wasn’t a charm though on our first leg, from Hochholzen, Germany, to Prague as we ended up encountering many road-works on the highway that carried us forth. It did put a spoke in our wheels, in a manner of speaking, eager as we were to reach our destination, but we were quick to remind ourselves that oftentimes it is the journey that’s the thrill, not simply the arrival at a given goal. That said, we did race every time the path cleared up. Signs were all good.
I could barely hold my breath when we crossed the toll booth, the entry point to Czech Republic, where we purchase a card for a certain amount to be brandished, whenever asked, to prove that we were legal entrants. The cloudy weather made it all seem very drab and uninteresting after the golden rapeseed fields of Germany. Yet we were exhilarated at crossing over.
The Air-bnb we arrived at without much ado thanks to our efficient GPS. Our host, Peter, was a kindly gentleman with a beautiful mansion boasting off a large garden and a cosy apartment meant for us. A fabulous welcome. I, for one, just couldn’t get my head around the fact that the entire apartment was all ours for our two-night stay. I ran around like a headless chicken into the garden, back into the apartment, scouring every nook and corner. It felt great, it felt right. The air was cool, and we headed out the moment my hubby found me trying to catch a breath.
We were in Prague- east Europe, and everywhere we looked, people smiled back at us. Our first evening was spent walking around the castle and just taking in all the sounds that fell upon our ears. No English. There was a language in the air that we were not accustomed to, adding an allure to the experience. We stood agape at the top of the hill that gave over the city- boasting a wide vista of steeples and thick clusters of homes and roofs that seemed to belong to another era. It took painful hunger pangs to draw us away and back downhill to search and ultimately find a restaurant that would satisfy both the meat-eater, me, and my vegetarian partner. We were the only ones in that eatery, and we discovered that the food on our plates was less than satisfactory. I decided that cooking might be the more palatable option.
The following morning we reluctantly left the confines of this beautiful ground floor apartment with a garden, armed with a map of both the metro lines and the city to take on our roles as tourists.
With help in broken English from a mother and her toddler, we found our way, quite easily to the town-centre which was teeming with holiday-makers from around the world, and we joined them – to be entertained and to enjoy whatever Prague offered in terms of history and beauty- both wrapped up in each other quite seamlessly. A hop on-hop off bus gave us the ride of our lives, allowing us to get a peek of all of Prague, or so it seemed. The fresh air, the continuous chatter in our ears, of the guide via headphones, and a blue sky above, rolling along with the bus- was perfect. The sun shone brightly. We were two content people. Our ride ended at the quay, where we descended into a motor boat that swayed, just so, and we were blown away, by the sights of innumerable steeples, and verdant hills that bowed to us. We barely heard the guide, as the waters of the Danube splashed about, beating relentlessly, the body of our boat.
Later we had a far more sumptuous meal at our temp home. Prague had hosted us generously enough, and we were not about to ruin our evening with yet another struggle for a good meal for two very hungry tourists.
Slovakia – Bratislava
The ride to Bratislava was an uneventful one, but we rode fast and arrived by lunchtime at another lovely apartment, which was fitted with both expensive and modern equipment, sporting the look of a designer home. We did not meet the owner, but were handed over the key by a friend, who left us in peace for the days to follow. It was quite a contrast to Peter’s home in Prague. We felt we needed to keep it as ‘delicately perfect’ as it was, and me being me, I feared soiling anything I touched. The centre room had designer sofas and a rather ‘cool’ centre table, and aesthetically lined porcelain vases adorned the corners. It was like walking into a magazine that displayed homes for the rich and famous. Being neither rich nor famous, it took all of my energy and self-belief to roam unfettered in this apartment.
Our evening was spent in the local quarter, shopping and eating ice-cream cones, and just roaming around, taking in the feel of the people and the land. We felt we were being watched, since we happened to be the only Asians in that area. It was ok, and truth be told, I felt a bit of a celebrity who hadn’t quite made it in the big league. Back in the apartment we gorged on local fare, which was a bag of Bratislavan chips and local wine. We ended this high caloried dine-in with grapes and apples. Not so bad eh!
The following day we did visit the Castle, whose gardens were more attractive to us, sprawling as they were. They immediately drew our attention away from the lofty castle itself, as they gave over the city’s riverside, and its skyline. We wandered around like two lost souls, soaking in the greens, the large number of couples that lounged on the benches, taking in the sun’s warmth – just allowing it to wash over them, even as we deftly marched on the shaded areas. We marveled yet again at the rising steeples, the hanging bridge across the vast Danube, and gorged on a delicious Italian meal- playing it safe paid off, and we were richly rewarded by some excellent service and tickled tastebuds. A strong double expresso rounded off the meal quite impeccably.
We ambled along and found our way to the Slavin memorial after losing track of both time and tracks. However, it afforded us quite an insight into other areas of the city, which proved to be the best part of our day yet. Later, on the insistence of the partner, we drove out of the city to visit the Devin Castle, dating back to the 13th century, which definitely stands out as the highlight of our tour of Bratislava.
This ancient stone castle, stands just inside Slovak territory on the frontier between Slovakia and Austria.
It is quietly positioned upon a hill and casts its vision upon undulating prairies and quaint villages. I reminded myself that this was one rare occasion when I felt not an ounce of regret at having listened to my partner’s obsessive persistence to drive all the way out of town.
On learning more about Devín : since the 19th century its history inspired several romantic poets. It became an important national symbol for the Slovaks. It featured on the reverse of the former 500 Czechoslovak koruna banknote. Now that’s something!
This was heaven- we stood agape on the side of a broken castle wall and watched the sunset. The sight of the confluence of two wide and strong rivers wormed its way into our hearts, forever more. Two water bodies- the Danube and the Morava rivers flowing into one another to form a third wholesome body. In the mellow light of the setting sun, what met our eyes was nothing short of mystic. We had to tear ourselves away on being told that time had run out and we might miss our boat back to town. A half an hour later, we were aboard a humming boat-bound to arrive at Bratislava port in an hour, celebrating the union of Morava and Danube then and now. We were naturally quiet as cold winds whirled around us, and allowed us the time to absorb recent images we now carried.
Gaping at what shone in the light of the setting sun
Grand old Budapest where we spent time shopping, eating gourmet food and riding the river. This time though, the air-bnb quarters were neat but windowless, and our bed had a strange blue light that it emitted ceaselessly. It was eery and exceedingly claustrophic. We managed to survive the night, and rushed off to Zagreb thereafter.
Buda-Pest – two sides of the same coin bespeak history, much like most east European countries, and has clearly lived through many a war to claim and stake its place in the scheme of things. It is a bustling city and there were a large number of tourists combing the city by any means at their disposal. We walked, well mostly, until we embarked on a water cruise. It is a truly lovely city, with hills, waterways and yes, steeples meaning church-goers aplenty. But from what I understood from our Hop-on, Hop-off (yep, best way to rush through a city to pick and choose for later, that which is more attractive), only thirty percent of the country is a regular God-fearer. Surprise, surprise, yet no surprise there! With so much bloodshed and war upon war, what would you have one believe, that God’s all love and kindness? I suppose not.
People here were exceedingly helpful and kind. Walking permitted us to really observe them, their behavior in general up close, and grab a bite – falafel wrap, on the way. There is much to buy in this city, including handcrafted crystal-ware, which we dared not- delicate and heavy as it is.
ZAGREB – Croatia
The following day, was clearly distinct in its ethos. How, you might ask- it was the air, its folk, so much simpler and that much more curious. We spent two luxurious days at Screcko’s home, and were given a small but well-appointed apartment. It overlooked a large park abundantly lined with trees and the cheery patter of happy feet. On our first evening we just hung out in the local marketplace, which reminded me of Gurgaon’s Vyapar Kendra, minus the discomfort of it being likened to a maze. It had all sorts, and we were instantly made comfortable on entering a sandwich shop (imagine a rather large Pita stuffed with chunky tomatoes and goat cheese, sprinkled with salt and pepper) and being told that ‘India does gooood cinema!’ English is rarely spoken apart from this young person who had started with English at school as a third language; as for the rest, ‘No inglis’. We managed just fine- charming information out of unsuspecting Croatians. The weather was glorious, and we wistfully observed a large variety of dogs being walked on leash. It is our favoured domestic pet, so the delight was all ours, remembering ours back home, now gone.
Zagreb is a very pretty town- with great places to eat and shop. Its air is clean as are its people. For us the highlight was both shopping at Müller, a large department store, and spending over two hours at the Musuem of Broken Relationships. The latter displayed items that held deep significance in a narrative that recounted the fabric of a broken relationship. It was not just deeply moving, it also told us how a common thread binds all relationships – be their tying or their untying. Some items on display included a hammer, a high heel shoe, a gum wrapper and even a little bottlette that once carried drugs like Ecstasy. Even as I read the accompanying tale, I felt a tremor rise within me. Each one left me either with a teardrop, or a quickened pace, on to the next one.
Zagreb to me, was the best part of our four city tour. I would have liked to stay for another two days- not so much to see anymore on offer, but just to be. We both, hubby and i, felt similarly, and we both will continue to feel the need to return to Croatia, inshallah we shall!
This trip was unique in many ways for us, but that would require another post. So long for now!
Can the weather make a town as delightful as it is? Can the swaying canopies windsweep away all the dust that can collect around your ankles, in your nostrils and in your home? I don’t know how this works, but a love affair, especially one that is renewed, can begin at any time and does leave an indelible mark upon one’s soul…even if it fades away in time. Mine didn’t.
My affaire d’amour with Bangalore began years ago when i visited with our 1 yr old daughter and stayed in a hotel. I recall the cool, crisp air all through the day as we switched from auto-rickshaw to cab to friend’s vehicle. I remember the smells – varying from freshly ground coffee, to sambar, to frying vadas to spices. I do recall with delight the avenues lined with large-canopied trees and marvelled at the shade they cast, their beauteous leaves swaying along with us. I also remember some pollution but largely the impression i carried back to big, busy city of Delhi was of inner delight. Would i ever live here…nah, not possible-i could never get this lucky! I envied our friend’s luck….However, as a young parent, i imagined life to be rocksteady and dedicated to parenting and wifehood in one single city- and that was some twenty odd years ago. It has been anything but steady, and possibly even rocky. Even so, were life a game and one had to choose from among rock, paper and scissors, we would still choose rock and give it the meaning we have. Within the confines of constant change, we found our rocks…that held our fall. Today, that rock is Bangalore, or with respect to the Kannada language, Bengaluru.
I have lived here not once but twice, and the love affair has sustained, and not of my asking or yearning. Here, I’ve been both lonely and over-indulged, happy and sad, i’ve been sober and deliriously drunk, and have both entertained and been entertained. Bangalore never leaves you alone, not in any simplistic, bachelor kind of way- it wraps itself around you stealthily, it grows on you and finally, you are captive- you bind yourself to it willy nilly . From minor to major, from andante to allegro- the music plays on. One learns how to pronounce some of the most lengthy, unpronounceable Indian names of places and people and roads. The process can be quite delightful really, once you get the hang of it. You end up feeling ecstatic especially if you get the key Kannada phrases thanks to delightfully long rides in your car, with the radio on full blast. “Maja maadi!’, “Sakkath hot”, “Nannu …hogthini” and so on and so forth. Enjoy maadi, as one constantly hears young folk say out loud- meaning, “have a ball!”
For the names- I’ll start with Deve Gowda- Jala Halli – Baanaswadi – Gubbara Halli – Bomanna Halli – try this one: Baya Panaa Halli (tongue-twister eh!), Ramagondana halli and its international airport at Devana Halli..phew! I will not even start with the Pura-s. Halli means village and pura means settlement or township. Going by the number of Hallis in Bangalore, one can safely deduce that Bangalore has risen from village or small town and has become India’s Silicon valley! Wow! I love it- not so much the growth into a multi-township but the fact that the inherent charm of the city arises from its humble beginnings. I live in Ulsoor, which is Halasuroo as it goes by its original name spied at its Metro station. From Bangalore to Bengaluru- a sketchy backward and bumpy ride, since the politics of Karnataka keep coming into play and pull out their stops to remind its vagrants, that while what meets the eye is a modern, upwardly mobile city- offering all the brands one can bring out of a hat, it is still Karnataka’s stronghold, and they won’t rest till one sits up and notices. When i use the word backward, all i mean is that it’s all in the name : Bengaluru- a call to return to its root, a worthy reminder of whence and whither, no more and no less. For example a few years back, the resto-bars had been categorically told to shut shop by 23 hours. I wince as i remember a police jeep waiting outside the Resto i was at with my friends, with lathis (sticks) lest the manager had refused to comply. We were out at 23 hrs sharp. So notice one does.
I’ve had to wind my way from Whitefield into town on many a hard day- with reference to the above, Bangalore or Bengaluru – its new moniker, has narrow roads reminiscent of its humble, peasant past- and the Silicon Valley needs cars and buses and all the transport represented by the modern world and speed it up! I belong to the latter- so i drive my own car- big or small it wouldn’t matter because a narrow road can take only so many cars, one way or another. I’ve suffered incessant noise, pollution and chaos. I continue to. Yet the place is all mine to own. It is not insignificant, by no means whatsoever , that Bangalore welcomes folk from all over the country- from every direction and more than just its own country. There are people and there is nature, both surviving side by side. Harmoniously? Absolutely. The lake opposite my apartment stands testimony to that- it has been cleaned up- its body shimmering under the sunlight and the kayaks that float by every now and then look mighty pleased to me, as do the army men who adorn them.
Bengaluru …its beauty, stamped upon my heart with its indelible and unique pathways, turns, pot-holes, irreparable roadways and some very interesting areas that need revisiting. What i cannot resist sharing is that in contrast with any northern town like Delhi, Bangalore’s restos, pubs and innumerable take-aways or Eat-ins offer the most delectable south Indian fare….today it has also done justice to North Indian tandoori food, so one really has it all. Its outlets are willing to, more than ever before, deliver and bring home all sorts of foods to your doorstep if you wish. The body has its needs, and hungers for more than just a plate of edibles. A wise man’s tummy wisdom is measured in his need for gourmet fare, for aperitifs and for aesthetics. And a wise woman, even more so. A lot happened here in our 3 year hiatus.
Bangalore seems more powerful, more empowered, more giving even as it takes from you – your energy and your time, sometimes your dedication. I have a feel for the place. I am visiting more directions, am feeling more of it and wondering where everyone is headed. I observe the cars from my verandah, and listen to the rush in their honks – the restlessness tangible. I watch with equal zeal the motorbikes and scooties- two-wheelies- countless heads rushing in one or the other direction and continue to believe that there’s a nook for every person in this city. I am also certain that when i get behind the wheel, someone is watching me. Where are we all headed after all? For the moment, loving Bangalore is not a mighty task at hand, and i intend to keep nurturing this affair….flirt with it, keep playing with, and if it won’t listen, i’ll sulk and make it listen to my needs. So far so good.
Name an Indian language, it’s spoken here, so communication is not an obstruction; the buildings keep rising, housing is as upward as you wish it to get. Am i an emigrant, a vagrant or a permanent member of the Bangalore club- only time will tell but for now, i am looking to deepen my knowledge of its history, its current affairs and take a shot at predicting its future, which to me looks brighter every day, even if in adagio mode.
Will this be an affair for my kids and grand-kids to remember me by?