Sunday, November 21, 2010
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
London is many things. London is Belgrave Square
Is it cheating to say that the embassy buildings looked, er, stately? In the mid-morning mist, flags flexing their damp sinews, they certainly did.
Belgrave Square was so different to the one that whizzed past me yesterday. Today, the quiet park that lay in the midst of various countries’ UK embassies and high commissions was draped in the cool curtain of imminent English drizzle. Yesterday, at this very time, I did not stroll through the cobbled streets and past the Bentley’s carrying bored old men. Yesterday at this time, I sprinted from Hyde Park Corner bus stop F, across roads, through underpasses and in between angry cabs, holding my falling jeans in my left hand and a crumpled appointment letter in my right.
I was hopelessly late for my visa appointment at the Germany embassy. The tube strike had totally thrown my google-mapped plan into the Thames. The double-decker bus did its uncanny best to reach every traffic signal just before it turned red or rumble up to a zebra crossing just as a Spanish tour group moseyed on across. My appointment window was between 9 and 9:30. It was 9:15 by the time I reached Marble Arch. I’d left the quiet roads of Chiswick over and hour and a half ago. The bus stank of commuters’ frustration.
Marble Arch at last. I asked the universe to take pity on my today and tore down the road to the next bus stop. Making one’s way through a school of angry but more importantly, late, London commuters isn’t easy. I think most people wanted to strike the tube workers right back. I really didn’t care for anyone else’s fortunes that morning. I saw the number 148 out the corner of my eye and raced it to the bus stop, jostling people out of my way. My cause was more important; they had to take one for the team.
Miraculously, the bus reached Hyde Park Corner station at 9:19am. 4 minutes, just like tfl.gov.uk had said. Heart pounding, head spinning, jeans almost past the point of no return, I bound uncoordinated down a road that looked something like the in the colour print out flapping around in my hand. I started to see big, square, white buildings with flags and pillars. This was embassy country. I asked an elderly guy who looked like he worked in the area. I expected a crisp response. What I got only exacerbated the situation: out of his mouth rolled slow, unrelenting Cockney. I cannot stress on just how slowly he talked, explaining the route to me like I was an idiot. “Just turn raw-ight he-a and wowk dehwn this way,” he twanged, “You’ll see the flehg and even though the road veers left, daaan follow it, you jesh keep going dehwn...” I started running before he finished.
9:23am, you glorious, glorious speck in space-time. I arrived at the embassy panting uncontrollably, inconsolably. I was always slow runner but I convinced myself I made up for it with “stamina”. Yeah right. The German embassy was comically German. It wasn’t an imperial looking English building like the others. Instead of a cream colour town-house like the others, it was a rather boxy, ugly, modern grey structure with big black windows. The bouncer at the entry to the visa section and a pretty girl by his side were the welcome party. They both smiled as they saw me run towards them, thrusting my watch and my appointment letter in their faces.
“Calm down,” zey said, “Take a deep breath, you’re OK”
“Tube… strike,” I panted, needing about five exhalations between the two individual grunts.
“Ja, but I’m afraid if I used zat excuse I’d be fired,” chuckled the hefty German man, as he ushered me through the metal detector.
“Just take a deep breath, calm down, turn off your mobile phone and take a token from my colleague inside,” said the blond girl, smiling reassuringly.
Thank you, universe. Thank you for 9:23am.
As I settled into my seat, fighting off the last of the panting and wiping the sweat from my brow, I saw three fairly normal people enter the chamber. There were airport style seats and this South Asian family took their place next to me – on either side of me, in fact. I’d come to realise at a later time that this was strategically done.
The father was well dressed. He sported a very smart navy blue suit jacket above and off-white shirt. His greying moustache gave away his age. He certainly looked like someone who had been through this all before. His wife was dressed in a kurta, and looked considerably more weary – timid, even. While her husband had his poker face on, hers conveyed a 7-3 off-suit. She smiled a broken smile, as we exchanged glances. They were sat to my right, while their twenty-something, turban-clad son plonked down on the chair to my left and unceremoniously thrust a beaten-up looking application form in my face.
“What this?” he asked nonchalantly. He was pointing to question number 7 on an application form for a German residents permit. I told him it was asking if the person had ever been to Germany before and if so, when. I spoke in English at first, but after seeing the stress lines appear on his forehead, tentatively changed to Hindi. My Hindi is absolutely awful. I can just about hold my own in a swearing match and rattle off a shopping list to my driver back home, but that’s about it. But on we trudged, on through the dense marshes of that residents permit application.
After testing me out on question 7, he asked what number my token was. I told him I was number 34 and him and his parents’ heads all whipped up to the electronic screen, at the big red number 24. Instantly, somehow in unison, the three of the, using different words and phrases, asked me to help them with their application. I had nothing else to do, so why not. This guy was never going to be able to wade through the mangroves of simple English instructions without my help. He had spelt “retired”, ‘r-e-t-e-r’. He was filling out application for his parents. His father, despite looking as stately as the buildings in the area, did not speak a word of English. It was only when we got to a usually mundane question, number 14, that I was truly intrigued by them and their situation. The question asked whether they could go back to their home country. This is usually a straightforward “yes” so I was actually tempted to tell him to simply tick the yes box like I’d done for some of the other ones and move on. But for some reason I asked him which country they were from.
His answer came as a shock to me. They weren’t Muslim. Here were actual Afghani citizens. I asked him whether they were allowed to return. He said, “No”. I thought he misunderstood me, so I rephrased in Hindi.
“If you want to go back to Afghanistan, can you?”
Stories blossomed in my head. All the prejudices I had about them from the minute I saw the, disappeared, replaced by new fantastic tales of exile and escaping the Taliban. But I dare not ask. We clambered through the remaining 5-6 questions he didn’t understand. But all the while my mind raced, conjuring up new stories for the family. What were a Sikh family doing in Afghanistan? What did they want in Germany? The mother had been to Germany three years ago – why did the father not go? Who was waiting for them in Germany? Were they seeking asylum? Why couldn’t they return to Afghanistan? What had they done? What had been done to them? Why couldn’t their son speak English and why wasn’t he going with them?
My number flashed across the screen. I patted him on the shoulder and he thanked me. His parents shook their heads in acknowledgement and gratitude as I walked towards the visa desk, like only those of Indian origin can.
“Afghanistan”, I dreamt to myself, “Throw in a girl and subtly address immigration and you’ve got yourself Cannes.”
I presented my documents to the lady behind the glass. She checked with her supervisor. Everything was fine. This was not how it was supposed to be. I could collect my visa tomorrow. I got a green token and was almost home and dry.
The Indian fear, respect and reverence of visas and passports, as I discovered, was a self-fulfilling prophecy. We expect the process to be tough. We expect the proverbial booby-trapped tunnel that Indiana Jones faces at the start of the movie, where he has to swap the holy golden three-month multiple entry Sheghen statue with the bag of sand and then run down past flying arrows and giant bureaucratic boulders. We expect a struggle so we plan for it and we get it. But in the west, amongst ze civilised, it does not work this way. There is a human being on the other side of the glass. There is a person who you can talk to and reason with and explain yourself to and most crucially, they want to see you get to where you want. It takes us by shock. They can smile and this takes us by shock. My visa was ready within 24 hours. Unthinkable, impossible, mind-boggling! I collected it this morning and staggered out of the embassy, away past the Rolls-Royces, totally overwhelmed by how true the ‘efficient German’ cliché was.
I remember my coming of age in India – my first bribe. It was a Rs 200 gift to the security guard at the passport office in Bangalore for getting me the right form. The pink form instead of the orange form. I put the cash into the guard’s hand as instructed by him. It was a joke. I had to apply for a new passport because I had turned 18 and was accompanied by an uninterested man from the travel agency. Lucky for me they were petrified of my mum. So this tall, bored looking guy walked inside the high-ceilinged building with me and directed me to the right counter. He sat me down and told me not to move. I saw him approach a security guard with a rifle in a brown uniform. They went inside the bathroom and came out five minutes later. The security guard stood right back where he was, pre-shady-exchange. I was advised by the now interested travel agency rep that when the guard signalled, the passport officer’s chamber would open up and I should stand at next to the guard so I was first in line and avoided the queue. I did as I was told. I don’t know how much the guy paid the cop because he never told me. He just asked if everything was in order once I emerged and pushed off.
So you know what I was expecting. And here I was, standing next to a fragrant green park in the mid-morning drizzle. I felt an emptiness, looking at the Sheghen visa. The emptiness where I’d carefully stored all my stress and inevitable anguish at failure was cold and spread throughout my body and psyche like a lost bird.
I filled the space with a kebab and thought about Cannes as I looked out across Hyde Park. No need for the whip today, Indi.
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
As a kid, I used to be scooped onto an inter-state bus by my sprightly granddad and taken to a small a village every now and then. As I grew up, obviously, the frequency of these trips slowed. It’s only now, looking back on the 2-3 day expeditions to the sleepy little temple-hamlet, that I “get” it. I understand why I was taken.
As a five year old, it was all an adventure. The 10-hour bus ride was fun. I would lie down on my granddad’s lap and sleep or look out the window at the windy hill roads with fascination. I was five. My time in Sakori would fly by. My granddad’s sisters were all priestesses from the age of 11 or 12 in our ancestral temple there. But to me they were just cheerful old ladies who pampered me with sweets and even the occasional afternoon of TV. We own a little room right next to the temple’s impressive cobblestone entrance. It is nothing more than a first floor room, to be absolutely honest. The floors were crude stone and there was a stove in an adjacent “kitchen”. There was a door that opened onto a front balcony that overlooked the village’s courtyard and temple gate. There was a backdoor that opened onto an exposed path that led to the “bathroom”. No heated water or flushing toilet. There was a hole in the floor and a bucket with a 1950’s electric heating stick. A tattered mosquito net lay folded on the sofa. It sounds like a refugee camp, but I was five. It was all an adventure and I barely spent any time in the room anyway. In the interiors of India, there are plenty of things an enthusiastic grandfather can do to keep a five-year old entertained.
Inside the temple complex were trees to climb and cow sheds to explore and sacred rooms that were occupied by former swamis. There were the children of the cooks and temple clerks to play with. I remember being taken to see the cows, one morning. They were so big and intimidating, with great big scary eyes that followed you. I remembering being frightened, even of the tiny calf. I would run through the various rooms of the temple, muttering playful prayers as I passed each deity. Lunch was served in a stone-floor hall, on rickety wooden tables. I would restlessly finish my food and speed off with the other children to go climb a new found tree: a new challenge to fill my day with. In the evenings I would go for long walks with my granddad, along the sugar-cane fields and right into the heart of poor, rural India. Those vast sugar cane fields hid mud huts and dark skinned children with clay-like hair. But I was five, I ran ahead, chasing a farmer on a bicycle.
Going back there five, seven, ten years later, things changed a lot. I’d lost my innocence and the place had lost its charm. Going to Sakori was a chore that had to be done to please grandparents and ancient, ailing priestesses and the Gods, I guess. The yearly pilgrimage became something I had to ‘endure’ with my sister or younger cousin or whoever I was going with. I hated everything about the place. There was suddenly nothing to do. I no longer spoke Marathi and therefore looked shiftily at my feet when introduced to the same children I’d frolicked with years earlier. The food suddenly went from being food to being tasteless/spicy vegetarian food. The bus ride was excruciating; the windy hill roads became a nightmare that I tried to sleep through. No more tree climbing or cow milking. The temple was now a place where one’s shoes could get stolen. The ground I used to walk on barefoot, carelessly, suddenly was a minefield of sharp stones and prickly gravel. It’s amazing how bored I got at the thought of going to Sakori. Shambhavi and I would start taking cards along and playing cards at the end of a particularly boring day would become its highlight. The evening walk into the sugar cane fields became a time where I could daydream of Hong Kong or London or wherever I was currently living at the time. Perhaps saddest of all was my grandfather’s inability to draw happiness into me from the place he too had grown up with. He’d enjoyed afternoon naps with the three docile dogs in the temple courtyard. I was no longer five.
The room became a prison - the village itself, an island of boredom and punishment. I would yearn for the bus or car to whisk us back to civilisation, back to my cousin’s big house in Colaba.
And yet I found myself thinking about Sakori, the other day. I was stuck in the kind of traffic at Mahim Junction that makes you want to get out of the cramped taxi, jump into the sea and swim the rest of the way to suburbs. Out of the blue, I remembered the view from the balcony of our little room, at sunset. The immeasurable peace brought about by the orange late-afternoon light and the shadows it beams through the nooks of the old banyan tree. Immeasurable. I was taken back, so that I was sat next to the thin men who rest cross legged on the edge of the water tank that flanks the food hall. I was taken back to the men and women from the city who take care not to get their white kurtas dirty as they make their way across the square, to the temple. I remembered the reverberations of the chants themselves: the intoxicating energy of chants you’ve repeated subconsciously as a child. I remember the way a hundred voices echoing inside the main room weren’t loud, just powerful. All the chaos of the road, all the heat of the afternoon, all the humidity on my brow suddenly flooded back and drowned me and I wondered where Sakori had gone.
There is something abstract, something intangible about that tiny, tiny temple town that keeps my uncle and parents and relatives going back every once in a while. I think sometimes we all want go back in our minds to climb trees and run amongst cows and feel the warmth of priestesses prayer.
Friday, August 27, 2010
I walked into office. How lovely it feels to say that.
Bombay was everything I thought it would be. Moving back to India could not be going any better. I’d landed a cushy job working for a UK based company in India (thank you summer internship, thank you Dad). As I lay my soaking wet umbrella down and turn my laptop on, I cannot imagine a more perfect situation. I am the first one into my section of the office because I live only five minutes away. No dreaded Bombay train commute for me, no fighting like an animal for place and no armpits in my face for 45 minutes. People may find the trains charming but I’ll take my Rs 16 auto-rickshaw ride, thanks. Some mornings I forget to tell the driver when to turn because I’m too busy admiring the chaos on Linking Road but not this morning. The torrential rain outside kept me on my toes; I had to stop the auto at the right time, so as to get as little distance between the curved plastic roof of the rickshaw and the shelter of the office building as possible. I paid the driver his fare, took a deep breath and made a run for it. It was just across the road so unfurling my ancient, wet umbrella would be a futile exercise. I side stepped puddles and on coming traffic in my bid to reach the office as quickly as possible. All this while I was being watched by the security guard; the old man in the brown uniform who sits with his visitors’ ledger and watches the monsoon anarchy from his red plastic chair. I reached office 20% wet, which was a huge improvement from my first day, where, naïve and inexperienced, I was humbled by the monsoon-puddle-car splash cartel.
I turned the lights and AC on and waited for my co-workers to come in out of the rain. At 10am, it felt weird being the first one in apart from the ‘office boys’ (the cleaners and all round problem-solvers who seem to live in the office). There were a few people sharing sweets on the main meal table but they were strangers from far-flung provinces of the office and so I did my best to walk by them without making eye contact.
10:08am and Rahul walks in. Finally! He smells of cigarette smoke as usual and settles into his workstation next to me, sighing heavily: he’d gotten bitten by the monsoon. Rahul sat right next to me and as a result was the first and strongest friend I’d made. He was young and cool and from Bangalore, just like me. He worked on digital advertising (as the new guy, I was placed in the only available seat in the area, in the digital section) and showed me a lot of cool tools like SurveyMonkey and other tricks of the trade. We discussed Bombay nightlife and music and generally got along very well. What I liked about Rahul was that he was dead professional when working on a project. He took meetings very seriously and expected a high level of output from his co-workers. There were days when he was swamped and he didn’t talk to me even once and I was totally OK with this – it was something I admired. Rahul lived about 45 minutes away, which was about the average for most of my co-workers.
10:13am. Shefali and Poornima walk in. They live near each other, on the outskirts of town and so commute in together in Shefali’s car. Shefali was perhaps the most peculiar person in the office, to me. She was a very large woman, who had some truly bizarre quirks. She took pictures of everybody with her camera phone and sporadically uploaded them onto Facebook. She was a very sweet person, who would extend conversations long beyond the interest span of the other person. She always left her phone on her desk when she went somewhere and it would ring and ring without fail every time she ventured to another part of the office. Without fail. After a while you get remember everyone’s ring tones by heart – I learnt hers first. But the strangest thing about her was the transformation that would take place when she was on the phone with a client or a supplier. She went from being this sweet, rambling creature who reminds you of an over-enthusiastic aunt to being a ferocious, straight-to-the-point business woman. She would raise her voice and tell people off like they were children. She even spoke this way to clients! This kind of behaviour was unheard of in an agency; the client is a greater than God. And here Shefali blasted them for minutes on end, if a certain piece of work/feedback hadn’t been delivered on time or if there was miscommunication or even worse, laziness on their part. When Shefali was on the phone and when she got into one of her rants, everyone stopped what they were doing and enjoyed the unceremonious verbally beating. It was beautiful.
Poornima was much younger than Shefali. Her and Rahul were very close friends. Poornima was also cool but she was married, which threw me off a little at first, because I couldn’t imagine someone as young and fun and interesting as herself, being married. Marriage is for old people. Poornima would often send us funny videos over Gmail chat and she ordered South Indian breakfast each morning. Various people would ‘pile on’, depending on who was feeling hungry that day. Eating piping hot vadas when it was positively pouring outside was a great feeling. You bond with each co-worker at some point or the other. You have ‘the chat’ where you tell yourself about each other and really learn about the other person, to a much greatest degree than rumour or passing conversation could ever teach you. I had this moment with Poornima one day when no one took up her offer to get some chaat from down the road and I thought I’d tag along. She told me she’d worked for Microsoft for a few years and that she’d only recently moved to Bombay (this I could tell). She was very South Indian and made no bones about her fondness of Tamil music or film. I told her about myself and she was intrigued about why I’ve moved back to India after doing a degree abroad. Like most people in India, she was a little taken aback by the fact that I hadn’t decided to stay on and work in ‘London’, which is the Indian word for ‘England’. I told her that this job and this life was miles better than anything I was offered there and described how wonderful my life was at this moment in time: a month into my new job, my new city and my new state of mind.
10:25am. Vivek strides into office, smiling and soaking wet. “What happened?” we all ask. “Don’t take an auto on the highway” he chuckled. Vivek was my secondary boss. He was a young father who was on the threshold of being truly ‘senior’ as far as workplace hierarchy goes. He turns on his MacBook and we discuss his meeting yesterday, as he wipes the steam from his glasses. He had gone to meet a potential client and we sat down and had a chat about the particulars of the meeting, the history of the client and whether this would be a project we could work on. As the new guy, I asked a lot of questions and gave my inputs, which – I think – they consider ‘fresh’. Vivek is another one intrigued with my choice of moving back to India when the wonders of the West drew me so close to their bosom. The kind of money I’m making here, in real terms goes a hell of a lot further than my UK money would. I’m living with my grandparents who are only too glad to have me around: no rent or bills and food cost only if I want it. There is a maid to clean the house every morning and an anarchic laundry service that somehow gets my shirts back to me, ironed, after 2 days. I have my own room, with a TV and a bathroom. I spend Rs 40 a day ‘commuting’ by auto rickshaw and Rs 150 on average, ordering lunch into office. The only real cost I incur is having a good time and come the weekends/late evenings, boy did I have a good time. In absolute terms, I’d earn more in the UK. But then I’d have to live alone, make my own food, clean my own dishes/clothes, take the tube into work everyday and be thousands of miles away from my family. I’d get good roads, working police and all the other joys of the developed world, sure. But, as I explained to Vivek, after the kinds of summer’s I’d spent interning in India, her charms were too seductive. “Fair enough”, he said and gave me my day’s assignment. It was a research project. I was used to these kinds of tasks. A bit of savvy googling here and there, some analysis to tie everything together, a last check that I couldn’t do anything more to improve and I was done. One of the things I learnt quickly about working in an office is that no one works all day, like you think people do when you’re a kid. People work for 20 minutes, then check Facebook or Twitter for 5 minutes, then have a chat with co-workers about something work related that quickly descends into an office wide story telling session. Perhaps this was a pattern much more common with creative departments or professions: I remember the silence and sullenness of the office when I’d interned with a financial services company.
10:34am. Shweta arrives. Shweta is my boss, the flamboyant, high-flying head of the fledgling India operation. She has been in advertising and media for a long time and tends to hobnob with the city’s elite. She is a very fun person who swears as much as some of my friends. She is the most ‘senior’ person in the office and knows me very well through my parents. Thus, I get treated like a nephew even though I am a graduate. Oh, who am I kidding? I am the baby in the office until the next new guy arrives – what a glorious day that will be! She often initiates office chats by swivelling around on her chair and airing some industry news that causes everyone else to swivel around on their chairs and join in and build a lively 10-minute discussion. I love these discussions and love how they fizzle out when, one by one, people start swivelling back to their PCs.
These are the people with whom I share my little section of the office. The office itself is pretty run of the mill for an advertising company: big glass windows on all sides with a large pantry/table/eating area in the middle of the office. The office is located just behind one of Bombay’s busiest suburban roads and we are blessed in our little section, to have a wonderful window. You see, our window is polished from the outside with some mirroring material that turns our entire section into that little room next to interrogation rooms where you can see out but the person sees their reflection. Every so often this single-sided mirror will give us a hilarious moment, when some poor unsuspecting young actor starts checking himself out, preparing to enter the casting centre next door. We get all sorts and the second someone spots a potential self-admirer we all crowd around the window in some vaguely voyeuristic peer group, peering at the oblivious soul just a few feet away. We all have stories of the best instances of people checking themselves out that we’ve seen. Ashok’s story tops the lot. He was one looking out the window when a guy and his girlfriend pulled up on his motorbike and promptly started making out. While this was slightly off putting, Ashok didn’t pay attention until he noticed the guy flexing his biceps while kissing his girlfriend, with eyes on his guns rather than her! Just imagining the scene made us all laugh for a good few minutes. The single-sided mirror is one of the highlights of working in that office.
11:35am. Naman strolls in, flip flops slapping the white floors as he nonchalantly high-fives everyone. Naman was a real character. He was without doubt the most chilled out guy in the office. He was another one, like Rahul, who could be dead serious when he wanted to, but that happened about once every three weeks. Him and Rahul would take their cigarette breaks together and he’d get terribly flustered if Rahul had already gone for his smoke minutes before and thrown the whole cycle out of sync. There was no dress code in the office (once again, symptomatic of your modern day, relaxed, creative environment) and so most people had their styles. Naman always wore genuinely funny T-shirts and his trademark khaki shorts. He’d take great pride in unveiling his newly ordered T-shirts in front of us and getting a laugh. He was one of those who started a sentence in English and finished it in Hindi and vice versa, equally often. He’d always have some funny work related anecdote to tell Rahul or Poornima. He’d recite his story over everyone else’s heads, to the opposite side of the room, just so everyone hears it. He was the office joker. Naman was another of my close friends, especially at lunchtime.
Lunchtime was a really fun time in the office. There was one table inside and one table outside. On good days, both were used but in today’s ferocious rains, people had to take shifts on the inside table. Our section ate together at around 1:30 and lunch could last until 2:30 depending on how much you wanted to scavenge. Naman took me under his wing and taught me the art of eating everyone else’s lunch. People were very liberal about sharing food. Vivek and Poornima got yummy tiffins delivered by a very efficient company. Shweta’s maid always packed her some gourmet (by our standards) lunch. Nikhil and Shefali got tiffins from home. Naman and I would order food from McDonalds, Subway, the Chinese place or the Indian place. The trick, I learnt, was to order your food as every else sits down to eat. That way, you can snipe bites from everyone else and once you’re half full, chow down on the food you’ve ordered. By this time most people have cleared off the table or are too full to eat yours. Ruthless ingenuity. Lunchtime was another time where stories were exchanged and Shweta usually got things rolling with her tales of famous stars she’s met through her work. The gossip would reach a crescendo and then be totally smashed when someone’s Big Mac Meal arrived.
There was an unspoken pact between 2:30 and 4: no one would ask for work and no one would give any. We left each other to our own post-meal devices. This was when I’d do my Internet ‘rounds’, checking the Guardian, NDTV.com, Football 365, Arsenal blogs and other personal blogs. It was a time of quiet where I think, most people just wanted to digest their food and rest their mouths and ears after the frenzy that was the communal lunch.
At 4pm, one would either order tea/coffee from the office boys or go pick up some chaat or sweets. Shefali would bring around sweets everyday, without fail. It was another of her quirks, I suppose. She loved her sweets. This is when people would perk up and work related conversations would restart. This is when I’d show Vivek or Shweta my day’s work and get their feedback, in time for me to spend the final few hours of the day fine-tuning it before I headed home. The hours between 4 and 7 always passed the quickest. Before I knew it, it was twilight, the rain has eased up and it was time to pack my things and head home.
My first month had passed like those last few hours. It had been a blur, a wonderful, exciting, eye-opening ride that had shown me how enjoyable work could be and how welcoming and friendly a work environment could be. The Bombay office was an island of calmness, laughter and air conditioning juxtaposed with pulsating maelstrom of rain, smog and madness that was Bombay. I was part of the workforce, for the first time in my life. I was no longer a meandering student, wondering what I’d do: I was doing something. I’d become like my co-workers - I was no longer an intern. I’d reach home everyday, sit down on my bed and feel a real sense of satisfaction as I took my shoes off because that day, I had done work.
“Let’s go Casino, innit”, chimed Jeet, breaking the silence left by the loading of a new Pro Evo match on the Playstation.
It was a novel idea that caught my imagination, even though it was quite a common activity for Jeet and Nilesh. I had been playing on the Playstation in the messy living room of their basement apartment for the better part of an hour and was bored, hungry and a bit cranky. It hadn’t been an evening of vintage conversation and laughter, far from it. Nilesh was a friend from school in India, who still treated me the same and I liked him for it. We were both football geeks who had similar experiences in school; we shared hilarious memories of pathetic nights “clubbing” in Bangalore and boarding school antics mostly. But when he wasn’t talking to me, he became one of them. He became a Jeet, a Gujrati Londoner who wasn’t the least bit interesting or charming and who had a penchant for talking like a gangster and lazing around on a sofa playing Pro Evo. He’d become one of them and it was sad, to me.
I guess he was a victim of his environment; when looking for an apartment he’d chanced upon an advert posted by fellow Gujrati sounding guys in a nice part of town, so he took it. Dipesh was the other tenant in the flat but he was rarely in the living room, choosing to spend his time watching movies in his dark room. He was also one of them, just quieter. I found myself analysing these people and stopped myself, who was I to judge these guys? They were living life and seemingly enjoying it; I didn’t want to come across as a wet blanket.
So off to the casino we went. Nilesh wasn’t as enthusiastic as Jeet at first but he sprung off the couch as quick as anyone. It was 3am and October and therefore cold. I was in London for an Arsenal game and had decided to spend the night with an old school friend and got much more than I’d bargained for.
The bus ride was long and boring and awkward because the three of us had to sit in separated seats; London night buses are crowded, it seems! London by night was great to see though. There were plenty of people out and about. There were tourist groups and 20 odd year old girls clip-clopping across the pavement. The city was definitely still buzzing as we got off the bus. We walked across a couple of very charmingly lit squares that oozed Central London and then down a back alley that hid cafes both swanky and squalid. I clasped the sides of my coat closer to me: the wind in England is remorseless.
We finally reached the Casino, innit. It was the cheapest, tackiest thing I’d ever seen but I was excited. Neon lights screamed at us from above. “Slots, roulette, blackjack”, they cried in purple and red electric hues. Jeet and Nilesh both flashed their casino cards at the entrance and walked in. I had to fill out a form to get mine. It was worth it, Jeet assured me. So, after five minutes I was a member of ‘Play to Win’ Casinos. I felt an odd rush and decided to keep and open mind and try and enjoy myself in this alien world. It was my first time inside a Casino and it was quiet. This wasn’t Vegas.
Nilesh was playing an electronic version of roulette. He broke even. Jeet played slots, a game I shall never understand. He lost, obviously. He too turned his attention to roulette as I watched on curiously. He won! He won 5 pounds. I was offered the chance to play many times but declined. Watching was enough of an experience. We were amongst the 10 people in the Casino, although at 4am I didn’t really expect more.
We decided we would take our winnings to McDonalds. Jeet talked excitedly about previous nights at the Casino as we walked. His was South London slang – quite a dialect! He told us – well, mostly me – of how they had once gotten chucked out because of unruly behaviour and of a time where he won a whole £50 after a particularly successful night at the roulette ‘table’.
Everywhere as we walked, there was something to see. We passed nightclubs as they were closing. Dazed patrons staggered out, their loud voices filling the narrow cobbled streets. Bouncers were ushering boisterous folks out of their now brightly lit watering holes. There’s nothing more sad than a nightclub at closing time. The music is dead and the bright lights chase people out the door faster than any testosterone filled bouncer ever could.
We passed all kinds of emptying clubs. There was a joint that billowed only black people. It was clearly some sort of ‘night’ as the guys were dressed like pimps and the girls were dressed like… well you can guess what they were dressed like. Verbal fights broke out, in loud slurred tones. Someone had looked at someone’s girl and it was going to kick off. The girl screamed in outrage! How dare anyone look at her? We laughed and walked on.
And Indie club had all the telltale signs: the skinny, pasty skinned guys smoking outside. The production line wardrobes were amusing. There were even some long hair oldies walking slowly away, no doubt dreaming of that 'proper' rock pub they hadn’t been able to enjoy tonight. But it was mostly pale guys in checked shirts and plimsolls, as non-threatening a group as one was likely to find on this street, on this night.
There was a more conventional, house-music playing club that had emptied its laundry onto the street. There were suit-clad City boys, loudly discussing women and how much they’d paid inside. The City boys weren’t drunk but quite cranky. They searched angrily for an eatery to pander to their cravings. A Japanese restaurant sufficed. McDonalds glimmered in the distance but the large, steaming bowls of noodle soup in the Japanese place were too tempting. We joined the clubbers in their post clubbing grub hub.
10 pounds for a dish was worth it, just to listen to plethora of conversations wafting around us. I’m not sure Jeet or Nilesh cared but I did. It was fascinating. Hip, young Americans compared the night’s experience to ‘New York city’. The 4 actual Japanese people there ate silently, almost frightened to look up from their bowls. The City boys were louder than ever, inside the hole-in-the-wall.
“I bought her a fucking Mango Martini”
“Just leave it, Eren”
“Nah, she was acting pricy for no reason”
“They all do, you muppet. That’s why you buy ‘em Tequilla”
“Fuck this, we’re going to Soho tomorrow night, this was bollocks”
I hid my smile in my Udon. I tried to make conversation, reminiscing about school nights ‘out’ with Nilesh but he seemed distracted. Jeet asked me about India and I told him about life there. I “sold” him life there, like I try and do to everyone who asks me about India. It’s purely instinct, I promise.
It had been an eye-opening night for a sheltered kid like myself. I’d seen the night in London’s dazzling centre. Whether I’d be back again is an intriguing question. Maybe after a little Tequilla.
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
What was going on below? What new Kalashnikov mischief was afoot? What were mothers whispering into their children’s ears? What were the troops saying about Hurt Locker? I tried reaching out through the Arabian night. I tried sending my spirit to the Middle East, to that most misrepresented world.
I tried to empathise, but then I picked up the dinner menu and like the rest of the world, was engulfed once again by air-conditioned apathy.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
Saturday, March 27, 2010
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Most things worth writing about in my life, involve a bus ride. I'd taken plenty of over-night busses in India and this journey - though much more lively and colourful than previous ones - was largely similar. I boarded the bus at Tatooine, after finding out that those were not in fact the droids I was looking for. Did I say Tatooine? I meant Madiwalla bus stand, in Bangalore.
It was as dusty and hot and grumpy and yet excitable as always. Hundreds of people braved the dust-storms that ravaged Jabba's home planet, all of them standing in circles around their luggage and sizing up those around them. The city lights kept the night at arm's length: for an 8pm sky, it was a strange sort of purple. I am a different kind of tourist to most at this bus stand. Ganesh Tours and Paolo Travels and Seabird Tours are not used to backpack'd 19 years wearing, God-forbid, shorts. Most of my species have flown south for winter - but where is the fun in flying to Goa? Nothing like an overnight ride to really think about stuff.
I boarded and found my seat next to Bindu. I said hi and like that, I was friends with a Mallu. Your picture-book Malayali specimen. She used the phrase 'trust me' (or "trawst me" as she said it) in every sentence. The only thing missing was Parachute Advance. I loved her because she was New India. A sincere, hard working person from the interiors who’d slogged her way to the big city life. She represented everything I admire about the changes taking place in my country. She wasn’t posh, she wasn’t the silly foreign educated Tinkerbell I’d come to know so well. She didn’t drink or smoke and she was going to Goa for a reunion just like me. She worked for an IT company – surprise, surprise. She was 25 but treated me as an equal. She talked of her town, of her country life and - let's be honest - was absolutely blown away by my charm, as all women are. That being said, we were but fellow passengers on this piece of insulation.
A bus is vessel of insulation. You lay there, air conditioned, squinting at a far away plasma TV (yet listening to your own music), totally cut off from the moon-lit mysteries hurtling by outside. A stray tube-light here or there offers a slight insight into the happenings at this time of peace. I love the country side anyway, but at night, at 60 kilometres an hour, the vast fields and dirt tracks and quiet dogs and dead trucks move me. I love the silence outside, the silence I don't need to hear to know of.
Grumpy middle-aged Indian men shot contemptuous looks those chattering away inside the bus, through half opened eyes as they tried to sleep. Only about half the bus was Indian, the rest were international tourists. The atmosphere was wonderful. Everyone was sharing their experiences about India. There was a guy from Canada, Pierre, who was the cheeriest of the bunch. He made his way over to each and every person who was awake (this bus left Bangalore's last stop at midnight). He was a delightful character; as non-threatening as a guy with tattoo-drenched arms can be. There was a family from England: a father and his two daughters. There was a couple from Brazil. I felt proud that they'd come to see my country. It was a nice feeling. I recommend it, whenever you meet any tourists in your country.
There were was also a group of teenagers like myself, sat in the seats directly across the aisle. They didn't look very friendly though, which to be fair, goes without saying. We, of course, went through standard protocol for when "you're stuck somewhere with other people your age who you don't know". It's standard operating procedure and can be found in chapter twelve of the Hitchhiker's Guide to Teenagers. I'll summarise: look cool. Make sure you don't look bored - listen to music or light a cigarette and look mysteriously off into the distance, pretend to be texting someone and please, whatever you do, don't smile! When your gaze does meet one of the Others', hide any interest you may have and make sure you don't chicken out and look away instantly - maintain eye contact for a second before looking away as if you don't care. Do this until they or you leave. I'm not quite sure what it means to look cool for this time period, but if you do, you win... something.
The next morning I awoke to foggy hills and Avatar (Avathaar, actually) dubbed in Hindi, blaring in the speaker system. It was different to watching it in the cinema, where the crowds cheered and whistled. Still quite fun though. The foreigners' faces were fun to observe. Poor things - some of them hadn't even seen Avatar in English.
We stopped at in the wee hours of the morning at a road-side 'dhaba' for breakfast. Relieved smokers and pee-ers alike jumped off the bus like X-wings out the bowels of a doomed Death Star. Ha! What if there was a dude who needed to smoke as badly as he needed to pee? Which would take priority? As a guy I can safely say that taking a slash after a long time is categorically the best feeling in the world - even better than that feeling. I love dhabas because of the fantastic cross-section of society they provide. You have every kind of person here, because the tea costs Rs 2 and because everyone needs tea. In India, things take a long time, so you need a break. Movies have intervals and bus rides have dhabas.
Bindu is talking about something but I'm not listening, I'm placing people. Apart from us Volvo bus folk, there was the standard group of 6 local-college-attending guys with dreams of alcohol and maybe even sex. They were from an engineering college in a satellite town and were clearly heading to Indibiza for New Years Eve like me. There was the noisy village family, complete with one of those tiny grandmothers who looks like she's about to collapse under the weight of her skin and of course the screaming baby. They'd come on the local, inter-state bus that had holes in the side and the suspension of a late-model shopping trolley. I don't know where they were from or where they were going to, but I knew that made up most of the population. It was not a fact I wanted to think about too much. I saw a trio of IT workers. They were wearing jeans with cross-trainers - that's how I knew who they were. Jeans and cross trainers, I'm telling ya. There were two French guys in khaki shorts, still half asleep and who could blame them? It was 6:30am! Grudgingly they took in the sunrise with the SLR's hanging from their necks. I knew where they were going: the same place as me. There were quite a few couples, affluent types. They wore nice flip-flops and had their sunglasses out. I fucking hate couples.
12 hours after leaving the sand people of Tatooine, after starry skies and paddy fields, after misty mountain mornings and a shot of chai, I felt the force of the seaside heat flow through me. That was a Jedi night.
Monday, February 22, 2010
Soon after parking the bike, we were suctioned into a psychedelic tractor beam. Like moths to a flame, hundreds of us are drawn to the distant bass that echoed through the sultry night air. The trek to Anjuna Base Camp from the foothills of the car park is gruelling. The first beach lights are now visible on the horizon - the pace quickens. I glance around at those gleefully striding around me; so many have made the pilgrimage. A stream of bass hungry youth from all corners of our beautiful planet flows quietly through the solitary street. Some of the houses on either side look on disapprovingly. Tonight is New Years Eve: they’d be silly not to expect it.
I love hearing all the different languages and accents. Who says no one goes to Goa anymore? Those who hate it, those who find it too loud and too noisy do the right thing by not coming. Italians and Germans and Russians and Bombayites and Bangalorites and neo-hippies all follow their ears; their state of frenzy increases with the anticipation of what nears. Glimmers of flashing neon round each bend of the dark, windy path show us the way. We are but mice on this dusty Goan back-road, skipping along to the piper’s tune, oblivious to the plunge we’ll soon be taking. Dull thuds turn into sharp notes that pierce the humid darkness. Sounds of laughter and trance dance now make themselves known. They’d be hidden beneath the soft rustling of palm trees and moon kissed sea breeze.
We emerge out of the densely palm tree lined street into moonlight and the beach and the Goa I came for. The twin trance shacks on Anjuna Beach throb away relentlessly. Waves of water from the West and sound from East pound at the beach they bathe on. The sea-facing fence at Curlies has been broken down by drunken Indian men, who want to be part of this paradoxically exclusive experience but who do not tick the boxes. They are soaked in Cashew liquor and sea water, their eyes are wild and their dance is wrong. Their dance is Indian. For them, this is simply another party they are not good enough for. It is the wrong kind of dance.
Quick to respond to the changing market, a 500 rupee tariff is now levied upon all those who wish to enter the drumming disco delirium. This fiscal policy is met with outrage from the drunks and locals. It is a protectionist sieve through which we slink. It is an unfortunate but sadly necessary cost we are willing to pay. Sigh, it’s become yet another club with yet another bouncer outside. It doesn’t have to be like this.
The crude steps carved out of sheer rock are a bit tricky to navigate in the artificial twilight. But we reach the warm, soft sand soon enough. All around, people move to the music, eyes closed, spirits soaring. Curlies is rocking, but not for long. High pitched squeals from the beach! The drunks have broken through the line and pour through in great numbers. The fort has been breached. We retreat to the safety of the next shack along Anjuna beach, Shiva Valley. It is similar to Curlies, but the music is darker. One is still wished a Happy New Year every 5 minutes, but the crowd here have blood shot eyes. We take the high ground, the steps that connect the dance floor to the beach. In the distance, we see Curlies conquered. The drunks occupy themselves by harassing the foreigners; prisoners of war. It’s India, accept it. Enjoy the bass.
What sound it is. It prods at every sinew of every limb, inducing movement. Like others around me, I am helpless – completely at the mercy of some nondescript DJ. He manipulates us mortals like some sick puppeteer. The speakers are the colossal black pillars that hold this temple up. They spit forth the soft, sped-up guitar riffs that whir in the background, that make Goa Trance what it is. The riffs are unmistakable; without them, the sound would be generic electronic music. It is the background riff that catalyses it all. It is the glue that holds together the squeaks and squawks and thuds and. The kick drum is faster than that of house music but slower than jump style and other European techno off-shoots. It is the background melodies that give the songs their speed. Voice samples laced over soft rumbling tones provide periods of respite. These periods of relative quiet are the ladders that the aforementioned drum climbs up and down. The DJ uses them to talk to the crowd, luring them into a sense of calm before once again sending hundreds into limb-flinging trance. He isn’t one of those pretentious ‘one hand on the headphones, one hand on the decks’ DJs – he wasn’t pretending like he was mixing a live set. He was just a happy Jewish bloke playing some dark, dark psytrance.
Above us, light-sabre duels rage on, synched perfectly to the rhythm of the speakers. The lights glance off the murals on the walls, making for a kaleidoscopic spectacle. If only you could see the red-green lasers paint and repaint the Hindu art that night, you’d be as mesmerised as I was. The decoration was half the battle won – draped along the sides and back of the shack were fantastic tie-die murals depicting various Gods. I think this was a Goa party; it attacked every sense from every angle.
But step out of the shack and ankle deep into the lukewarm water and the atmosphere is very different. The music is further away so you’re once again in control of your body. One’s eyes are given a break from the Star Wars disco lights. It’s only from the beach that you can truly appreciate the beauty of a full moon and the pristine silver light is playfully exchanges with Arabian Sea. The haphazardly organised fireworks offer yet more colours that challenge the vast, black sky.
Lying back on the sand, in a circle with the friends I came here with, I have found, as my mum says, ‘my coordinates in the universe’. It is a dream you never quite wake up from.