In a sea of black,
This guy’s backpack
Dares to be pink;
But it’s not what you think –
He’s not LGBT;
It’s a strategy –
It’s easier identifying,
So, no one needs to ask or think –
And can instead pull it out in a blink.
In a sea of black,
This guy’s backpack
Dares to be pink;
But it’s not what you think –
He’s not LGBT;
It’s a strategy –
It’s easier identifying,
So, no one needs to ask or think –
And can instead pull it out in a blink.
In the past 10 years or so, I have moved to Chennai twice. And returned twice. Both times, the city “didn’t work for me” (although my parents live there now, having moved there at the turn of the millennium, which is why I did too). Perhaps I had lived in Bombay for too long and since too long (and therefore, can’t call it by its present name), and so have had my friends and life here. This time in Chennai, seeing how miserable I was, my mom pushed me out on her own, with an understanding “You don’t belong here. Go back.”
So, I came to Bombay the third time. (The first time was of course when I moved here with my parents and brother almost 30 years ago.) This time, as with the first time, I am staying on the Western side. (In the second stint, I had stayed on the Central side.) And as I rediscovered the Western side after 11 years, saw the horror that has happened to it.
The Western side in Bombay, due to its proximity to the shoreline, is the more desired side of the city, and therefore more expensive, more crowded and more chaotic. (So, what’s to desire, do you ask? I told you, the sea-side.) But this time, it seemed to have cracked. Goregaon, Malad, Kandivali and Borivali, which were fairly peaceful suburbs until a decade ago, are now buzzing hubs, sporting the cacophony of the filmy and TV crowd that dominates here, the Metro work that is doing C-sections across the city, and screeching cars with their blaring horns and raging drivers. And of course, the high-rises, which bear the hordes in those cars for which the Metro is coming up. They stand up like giant dildos, ready to screw up the sky. Now you know why buildings are sometimes called erections.
I thought the place I chose to stay now would be a bit quieter as it was a bit on the outskirts. But no such luck. Budget constructions are coming up all around where I live, panning out from my complex as the epicentre. And because they are budget constructions, they are tall and close to each other, both to each building in the complex and to neighbouring complexes. I shudder to think how dense the population here is going to be a few years from now.
And then, I realised: I haven’t gone to Chennai twice in the past 10-12 years. I have tried to escape Bombay. As much as I love (have loved?) the city, somewhere, its charm seems to be wearing off. Thanks to the increased urbanization happening in the country, the ceaseless migration to the city, and the eternal commercialization that the city is famous for. So, maybe, this isn’t a wail of two cities, but a wail of living in cities. That, or perhaps I am the one gone old and weary.
Whenever I go rental-hunting in Mumbai, I face a hostile reaction from flat-owners, and by association, brokers. Given my kind of name and that I’m single, I guess they think I plan to set off explosive devices or go around strapped with them. Very few doors open, and those that do, lead to a dump or a worse dump. I eventually manage somehow, courtesy landlords who are open-minded, single themselves or both.
This time when I started my search though, I faced traas (loosely, agony in Marathi) much before the agents and landlords and from very unlikely quarters. My friends. Reason? My choice of location. They were belligerent: it’s at best a hamlet, it’s actually a weekend destination for many city folk, the commute’s a killer, and as a final assault, they aren’t likely to visit me in a hurry here. Read our livid lips, they sneered: it’s far-out far.
Is it? Aadhaar aside, I’m not one to share my personal details in the public domain, but here’s a bit: my station of choice is the northern extremity of one suburban railway route of Mumbai. By the local, you have to cross two sizeable inlets of water to get here… after crossing the official limits of Mumbai. It takes me 1.5 hours point to point, on the lower side, for a meeting or meet-up. The cell-phone reception is patchy at times, and I go on roaming when entering the proper city. There’s no mall or multiplex. And true to their threats, my friends haven’t come visiting thus far.
But it’s for many of those reasons that I chose this area. I’ve been working from home for some time now, so was looking for a bigger flat. My work is in the creative space, so was seeking a quieter neighbourhood. I also wanted to live closer to nature. To find all the above in official-limits Mumbai, you’ve got to either be earning millions or have inherited them.
And so far, it’s been so good. Oftentimes, the loudest sound in my study is the whirring fan. When I step out into the balcony, I see a small range of hills in the distance, the sun breaking through them at dawn. Stepping down, I see people sitting and chatting on kerbs, with nary a worry of a speeding SUV smashing into them: the roads are wide, the vehicles few. There are two verdant trails close by, one leading to a jetty, where you can repose along the passing river, the river interrupting, or aiding, your meditation with gently lapping waves. These paths go past paddy fields, where you find village folk with bent backs, a lone tree providing shade and masquerading as a giant scare-crow against felonious birds. During the monsoon, toward the end of which I moved here, the combination of hill, sky and cloud, culminating in silver rain, could inspire one to conduct an impromptu class in precipitation. And after the Ockhi thundershowers, the resulting air smelled Hill-station Crisp.
But it seems I was brought here by a greater pull of nature, or rather, smaller. Sparrows. These tiny, hop-happy ovates of fluff, who I’ve hardly spotted in main Mumbai the more than two decades I’ve lived in the city, are in merry abundance here. They bounce about ceaselessly, from one morsel or twig to another, with no fear of arthritis or plantar fasciitis. They swoop in to pick up fallen sprigs, while accomplices keep a watch perched atop, well, CCTV cameras. They puddle- and mud-bathe and relay it with such joy, you sigh at the cheerful communication their inspired creation, Twitter, was purported to be. It’s when they squabble with each other that they sound more like present Twitter.
I regularly sight a couple of furries in the process of, erm, coupling. I hop away sparrow-like myself at this, wanting both not to embarrass them or keep them from creating the only beings cuter than sparrows: baby sparrows. I’ve also come across a fluffy in another act of privacy, but this time, I couldn’t get away fast enough. After all, such a small being takes hardly any time to… poop. The pellet popped out the colour and size of a Tic-Tac, and I’ll stop here because I think I just ruined that mint brand for its consumers.
The benign birdies clearly relish the space and green this area offers them. Possibly lending weight to the popular theories why they have all but disappeared from the cities. There are fewer cell-phone towers here (and so my unsteady reception). But then too, there are fewer pigeons, or at least not as predominant as they are in the city. Actually, both species seem to get along fine here. Outside grocery stores, where benevolent store-keepers cast grains in the morning, both winged gangs peck away amicably, albeit in broadly segregated zones, much like the zebras and lions slaking their thirst in a call of truce at the African watering hole. Closer home, they take turns going down my balcony railing to roost in the vacant flat next door. Only, the pigeons waddle clumsily, the sparrows bounce buoyantly.
But perhaps, not for long. ‘Progress’ seems to be slowly taking the local train and landing up here. My suburban railway line now goes up to a station further north, placing my location half-way between the starting point and this new end point. A few buildings are taking roots near the paddy landscape, and after stealthy breaking and entering, will convert it into ‘landscaping’. Confirming the real reason why the critters are disappearing from cities, as ornithologist and conservationist Bikram Grewal shared at a session I attended recently: concretization. Like most areas embracing megapolises growing in beast mode, there’ll eventually be a property boom here too. The people, residential and phone towers, and pigeons swooping in will drive out the serenity, silence and sparrows. I might then move out again to someplace quieter. Maybe, to that new northern extremity. Or, to wherever the sparrows are.
I wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on thREAD
An Irfictionary post after a long, long time. Irfictionary? An Urban Dictinary-esque series on my blog. This time’s is inspired by soon-to-be-ready new apartment.
A couple of months ago, I went to check out the apartment in the final stages of completion. It’s a 1BHK, just like my earlier flat in Bombay / Mumbai. However, on seeing it, I realized, Chennai builders don’t know to make 1BHKs like in Bombay. There, due to the space crunch, 1BHKs are most in demand. So, builders there pack in the most into a small area, making it look not so small after all. Here in Chennai, I guess, people are still getting used to the idea of apartments. Here, houses have been the norm for the longest time, but now I guess with many people from the rest of India coming here for work, things seem to be changing. So, the apartment plans are very different from those in Bombay. In fact, there seems to be no plan at all. Yes, my flat’s hall is decently sized, the bedroom and attached bathroom modest, the wash area separate. But the kitchen is a killer. It’s at the entrance and tiny as the keyhole. Why, it’s so small, it gets over even before it started. And so, should it be called ‘kitchend’?
My new piece on thREAD, The Hindu’s online segment on perspectives, comment and such, on the fear psychosis of sorts in two Indian cities. Curious? Read on. (Though my blog post has slightly additional content.)
In the recently released Phobia, Mehak, Radhika Apte’s character, an artist, is molested by the driver of the cab she’s returning in late night from her art show. Resulting from that trauma, Mehak develops agoraphobia, a fear of being in perceptibly threatening places. She is panic-stricken and feels paralysed at the thought of just stepping out of the apartment door. Even when her boyfriend moves her out of her home to a rental, he has to drug her to do so. (Mahek is compelled to move out as her sister, who she is living with and is married with a son, begins fearing for how Mahek’s mental state and her resulting actions will affect her child and thus also begins getting exasperated with Mahek.) However, her condition doesn’t necessarily improve in the new place, and she sweats and palpitates like, um, crazy for a simple activity of putting out garbage bags.
Chennaiites seem to be in the grip of a similar fear presently. That of the rains. The moment they feel the drop of a drop (for the past few weeks, the city’s been intermittently receiving off-season, convective showers), images of horror and feelings of misery rush into the collective psyche. Thanks, or rather, no thanks to the floods of last year.
However, as someone who’s stayed here only for a few years, my reactions – and I don’t mean to be insensitive in the least bit – seem to be more like those of people around Mahek: puzzled at the mass fear, so to speak. During the rains / floods too, I was baffled first by the amount of rain the city received (a city that I had heard has only one season, hot, or three: hot, hotter, hottest) and then by the reactions of both the city and the people: anguished, broken, crushed. And this isn’t because I stay in a part of the city that seems to have better civic amenities. Or because I wasn’t able to see the effects in the other parts; when the lights came back two days later, on TV, we finally got a sense of the plight all around. So, before you seem baffled in turn by why I was bewildered by the city’s and the citizens’ what-I-initially-considered “magnified” responses, and therefore come across as callous and uncaring, let me share why.
I have stayed in Bombay / Mumbai for the longest time, and before that, in Calcutta / Kolkata or pretty long too. Two coastal cities, just like Chennai, but that receive a lot more rain than Chennai, so much so that in both metros during monsoon, there are occasional floods, or at least regular water-logging.
In Mumbai, people’s reaction to the rains moves along with the months of the monsoon. May end, when people have been burnt to the bone, but sense the first rumbles of the clouds, hearts begin fluttering in anticipation, much like the office-goer’s at Friday 4pm. When the first rains hit (usually around end May or early June; this year, they are set to debut around now), those hearts, and people to who those hearts belong, begin dancing. They rush out, drench in the first rain, on Marine Drive, at Juhu, or just in the compound. Everyone feels like a merry Bollywood couple. Young, old and wet alike, they hum classic rainy songs, brim with poetry, and talk of quaint things like “the redolent petrichor”.
A month later, the mood is, well, May-December. After four weeks of grimacing through slushy streets, wet clothes, wetter shoes, soaked shirts and skirts, sitting or standing next to other soaked shirts and skirts in the local or metro, the Mumbaiite is already begging for a reprieve. And Nature responds in true Nature-ishtyle, by giving them… July. When the rain is at its most belligerent and leads to the breakdown of most civic machinery, especially on one day Made in Hell. This is either mid or late July; 26/7 is another beleaguered date in Mumbai’s long list of such dates, and similar to Chennai’s 1/12.
Train services and trees collapse, people are stranded in offices, on roads, at stations. Or take hours to get back home. When they finally do, all they want is a comforting hot bath. Only to find there’s no electricity. By which time, they are cussing the corporation in ways that would do the Delhi Sardarji proud. The next day, of course, everything is considered off: offices, schools, colleges, services. Sounds the same as what happened recently in Chennai, right? (See, I told you I wasn’t being insensitive.) And this occurs year after year, without fail. In fact, if it didn’t, people would think something was wrong with Mumbai, or with Nature. But the next-to-next day, the city, as has become hoary to say by now, “bounces back”. Everything is back to normal, or some semblance of it.
Before the puzzled Chennaiite wonders how, this isn’t all because Mumbai really has some “never-say-die” spirit (in fact, with all that the city’s endured over the years, Mumbaiites feel that statement is a cruel irony), but also because, due to its location on the country’s west coast, which receives the south-west monsoons, the main rains in India, it has built a largely decent and decently working drainage system, despite the burgeoning population. The lack of which, many admit, did Chennai in during the Rains from Hell. As also the unmindful construction of buildings in low-lying areas and marshlands. And of course, faulty coordination and decision-making when it came to the matter of that dam-water release. All of which have given many a Chennaiite many a horror for many a month at the sound of not many a rumble.
So, does Mumbai have nothing to flinch about then? Nope, many a Mumbaiite has a phobia too.
If Chennai has been witnessing large-scale unauthorised construction due to its emergence as a software and manufacturing hub, its firm position as the South’s film capital, and thus the constant influx into the city, and therefore the need for massive new commercial and residential spaces, Mumbai’s tale has been no different. After it finished reclaiming land from water (the city was built from seven islands and now even has a sea link connecting some of them) and then claiming the air (high-rises), the city, due to similar reasons of being a financial, marketing, and glamour capital and thus having non-stop immigration, has been devouring land, like a super-starved T-Rex. And after eating up most of legit land, it’s been turning its attention to… the forest.
Builders, unscrupulous and unknowing alike, aren’t just building close to forest land, they are also building on it. I myself have stayed in a few such places. One complex, built on official forest property, had a long fence put up by either the builder or the residents, demarcating the “residential space” from the “forest land”, as if to give the complex legitimacy. (After a long-drawn-out proceeding, the owners – mercifully, I was a tenant here – had to pay compensation to prevent their flats from being razed. And this is proving to be more the norm.) Another area, very rapidly developed, where I actually was an owner, has been created by carving a big, long road through what was earlier considered a jungle and enveloping the city’s national park. It still has signposts urging people to watch out for crossing animals. In other areas, buildings and complexes are coming up either on hills or by breaking down hills. At this rate, Mumbai may soon need another mode of transport: ropeways.
Now, when you build on land that was earlier the animals’ and thus enter what was their terrain, the animals, devoid of an exclusive territory, are (apart from many dying as a result) forced to enter what is now “your terrain”. And I’m not talking wild pig, snake or fox here, but… big cat.
So, if every year, the whole of Mumbai has to bear the brunt of brutal rains for one day, every two-three years, for a month or so, the people living in these encroached areas are seized by big-cat fear. One day, someone spots a leopard, or worse, claims a leopard attacked and killed a child or small-sized adult, and everyone, obviously, begins panicking. Wildlife authorities are called in, people are warned not to go out alone in the dark, residents are advised to keep their surroundings clean (the big cat comes for street dogs, who are found near dumps, as its food source is getting rapidly depleted in the rapidly disappearing jungle), banners with messages on reaction and action points are put up. When the fear reaches crippling levels, typically with numerous sightings (though many of these might be unfounded), there is pressure on the officials to “do something”. What they typically do is set a live-animal trap for the cat. If it works, they go release the animal into deep jungle or a distant forest area. (This typically doesn’t work; there have been cases of leopards that have made their way back 100+ kms, as they are known to be the smartest of the big cats and, like all beings, prefer their own territory.) The people seem satisfied though.
During that month or so, though, people are understandably super-paranoid. A former colleague who lived close to my place told me she would jump on seeing a branch shake at night. In the same area, when returning late through a 750-m straight, dark stretch with buildings on one side and forest on the other, I would be nervous myself, not knowing if the two lights in the distance are a small car’s or a big cat’s. And so I would take the auto right up to the building entrance, asking the autowaala to wait until I had gone in. In this other area, when I had visited an animal shelter during the period of a “big-cat strike”, the director told me a leopard had come a couple of nights (smelling potential prey), walked up and down the boundary wall, but had gone away, as the shelter had made sure all the small animals were locked inside. And when leaving my building for work one morning, I heard a clutch of young mothers exchanging fearful notes (at that time, two leopards, a male and a female, had “struck terror”, something like The Ghost and The Darkness), with one lady exasperating, “Yeh kahaan se aaye hain??” (Where have they come from??) The animal lover (and somewhat expert) in me retorted, in my mind, ‘The animals could be saying the same thing about you…’
One city afraid of water from above. Another of cats from around. What they really need to fear – in case it isn’t clear already – is rapid, rabid, unthinking, unplanned growth. Mull over that while I go check whether that slow, gaining sound outside is a growing drizzle or a growling feline.
To rest people’s minds a bit, let me resort to the words of several wildlife campaigners in these “leopard-infested” areas in Mumbai, who now rather than aiming to remove the big cat from its territory are attempting to educate residents that it’s possible to “live with leopards”. They say, “If you’ve seen a leopard once, it’s seen you 20 times by then. And yet, it chooses not to do anything (to you).” I can’t resist adding, who really is the better species here?
Check out this link: Living with Leopards in Mumbai
For this post alone, this series should have been called Irfvestigating Vegan. Read on.
One of my Bombay friends is an associate with Nordic Kandie Magic (or simply Nordic Kandie), makers of gourmet marzipan and luxury chocolates. She had undertaken this association just a bit before I was in Bombay last, around Feb, and has been talking to the Nordic countries and back on how good the marzipan is. I heard her out as a friend, but as a foodie (or rather, voodie, a vegan foodie), I had tuned out. The only times I have been exposed considerably to marzipan is during Easter or Christmas or both (see, I have been that tuned out), when I used to work with this large organization in Bombay and when the sizeable Christian population in the department used to bring this sweetmeat for the rest of the folk. As far as I remember, it would contain egg, and so I wouldn’t have it (while I wasn’t vegan then, I was veg). Sensing my lack of shared interest, she seemed to ease up in her marzipan mania communication to me. And then one day, boom.
She got back squealing to me Nordic Kandie’s marzipan is very much vegan. Her WhatsApp message came around the beginning of April, so I thought it to be a belated All Fools’ Day prank. However, as the notifications from her continued with more and more exclamation points, I decided to speak with her. She gushed to me. Not wanting to first be elated and then disappointed, I calmly asked, “Are you sure?” She was vehement, “Absolutely!” And then she made me super-proud. Not by the confirmation that it is indeed vegan, but by narrating the tactics she employed to find out it is so.
She asked her boss, the lady who runs the company, whether it’s got egg. No. Milk? No. Cream? Nyet. (Her boss is from an erstwhile USSR republic, and more about her at the end.) Milk solids? Nada. Gelatin. No-no. The lady equally vehemently told her – as if offended that people think she puts these “contaminants” into her fine marzipan (and chocolates) – they use only almonds (and the best, mamra, from Iran) and organic sugar, and where they use chocolate, it’s Belgian and sans lait (without milk). And for the high-end marzipan, silver and gold (yes, thin slivers, and certified from where they buy this precious metal), but I am only Irfan Syed vegan, not James Cameron vegan. In short, she didn’t ask her boss directly, but very directly/indicatively and in various forms, and each time, her boss denied putting any meat or dairy vestiges in it. Time for me, and my heart, to go boom-boom. It was vegan, and my friend had found out, or investigated, indirectly. Just the way I do it. And like it.
Yes, that’s my strategy. When I need to find out whether or not something is vegan, I never use the v-word directly with the attendant/manager. Most folk, especially in India, don’t know what vegan is, neither as a concept nor as a word. At one place, the manager even shot back with a question of his own, “Baingan?” (Brinjal/Eggplant/Aubergine in English.) My friend had done (learnt) well. (She had also learnt to not dislike street dogs with my influence. That’s another strategy of mine: don’t forcefully urge people to be nice to animals; rather, show love to animals in front of them, and they’ll gradually begin liking them a bit, or at least loathing them less. But that is a part of the Irfanimals series.)
It was my turn to do the “inrestigation” – the rest of the investigation. I went to Google and the Nordic Kandie site and social media pages, and found that it is indeed “100% vegetarian and vegan”. And even the images looked good enough to eat. I turned the investigation back to my friend. Why doesn’t the lady say it’s so? Ah, that’s because many folk don’t know what vegan is; when she says so, many still ask her whether or not it contains egg. Villiterates (vegan-illiterates).
Vegan certification over, there was now only one thing to do: sample it. My friend came to my help here too. She said she’d send me some, at no cost. I wasn’t complaining, especially as it is high-end and not something I’d eat on a daily basis. Also, this is one of the perks of being a vegan blogger.
True to her word, though a bit delayed in her word – during the wait, I stopped short of sending her typical jokes like ‘Are the almonds coming from Iran?’ – it came last week, a couple of weeks later than promised.
The box was huge, and I wondered whether the European understanding of ‘sample’ is ‘copious’. But disappointingly or elatingly, it was packed long and hard. There was the outer box, then the bubble wrap (lots of it; bubble-wrap poppers would have been delighted), lots of cellotape, and then… squish. I felt my scissors had made an incision. Some sticky gel began oozing out. (Did some bubbles of bubble-wrap contain something other than air?) However, my mom, who’s apparently more used to packaging food items, assured me, “It must be something to prevent the items’ loss of quality or taste.” To me, it seemed a moat, for once I was through that, there was the jar of mini marzipans, like a fort beyond the water.
I cleared the wraps, cleaned the liquid, and held the jar of joy in my hands. Branding-loving me admired the packaging. The jar made of glass and not plastic, indicating premiumness. The deep blue ribbon, bestowing richness. And finally, the luxurious-looking brand card. I loosened the ribbon and proceeded to the lid. It was tight. I held the jar against the light and saw a vacuum seal. Neat thinking. I held the lid more firmly now and started slowly rotating it. The lid loosened and my senses did too: the aroma of almonds slowly went through my nostrils and then into me. I looked in: from top, the bits looked like billiard balls neatly arranged at the start of a game. I lunged in and popped one. Umm. This should be called mmmarzipan. Then, another. Then, another. And then, started feeling a bit full. But of course: it’s made of almond. I had my lunch (light), and then opened the jar again for dessert. Again, um, two, three. I couldn’t seem to be able to have more than three at a time. Which, come to think of it, is a good thing. It automatically forbids you to have too many at one go and fill up yourself and your hips soon after. Also, you can keep and savour it, even that tiny bit of a jar.
I had the mmmarzipan mmminis over three days. By the second day, I think I had figured out how to have it. Yes, these are foreign, specifically, European sweet-treats, and so an acquired taste. I even devised a small ritual. Open the jar, smell the contents (like they do wine), have the whiff of almonds pervade me, whet my appetite and then dig in for one, two, three, stop. Also best not to mix up flavours/tastes. They come in different colours/flavours such as rose, vanilla, light chocolate and dark chocolate and are coloured accordingly. My favourite was dark chocolate, also as I don’t have a sweet tooth, and not surprisingly saved those bits for the last on all days and for the end. And once there were none, I went back to leching at them on the FB page. And started sucking up to my friend.
To tell you a bit about the company, from the investigation I have done, Nordic Kandie is run by Thea Tammeleht, an expat of Estonian origin. She started this a few years ago, after multiple years in the corporate field, to pursue her passion and long lineage of making marzipan. In fact, on further investigation, I found that there is a long-standing war, though not a bitter one (can’t be when marzipan is involved), between Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and from where Thea hails, and a German city with a typical German name: long and pronounced like you have marzipans in your mouth. What’s the war over? Over which city the dessert originated in. I don’t know about that dispute, but over these Nordic Kandie treats there is none: these marzipan minis are mega magic.
Find out more about Nordic Kandie on their site: Nordic Kandie website
Connect with Nordic Kandie on their Facebook page: Nordic Kandie FB
My latest piece for thREAD, The Hindu’s online segment. After two pieces based around Bollywood, consciously decided to write about something else. And what better new place to do so than with Bangkok, which I recently visited? Find the published piece at the mentioned link and the original piece (with different visualization than on thREAD) below.
When in Bangkok, take the tuk-tuk, I guess.
My friend and I had had a severe day in the sun. (Thailand is at the same coordinates as the southern half of India, and therefore, no less hot.) We had walked around Grand Palace, deciding eventually not to go in as it was swarming with tourists; it felt like a Noah’s ark of the world’s various nationalities, races and skin shades. We did walk all through Wat Pho complex though, which houses the famous Reclining Buddha, viewing almost all the pagodas and stepping into a few of them, and even caught a short documentary on respecting the iconography of the Buddha, mercifully in an AC stall. The iced tea, freezing lolly and cold fruits only offered so much respite. So, after finishing our excursion, we ambled to the nearby Tha Tien pier to cool down, with the water flowing by and the multitudes of boats (literally more Noah’s arks) coasting along. However, the waters too provided only so much comfort. So, clothes sticking and legs shrieking, we decided to call it a day and head to the hotel.
We tried to hail a taxi, in fact, many of them, but to little avail. It’s a very touristy area, and with that heat, all the farangs (Thai for ‘westerners’) had the same idea – be in the cold cocoon of an AC on wheels. Plus, for the same reasons, the few free drivers were refusing to ply by the meter. And then, in that heat-wave, my friend had a brainwave. “How about a tuk-tuk?”
I had thought this would be something I’d do on day four or five (it was only day two), but seized by spontaneity and perhaps a sense of mini-adventure, my eyes widened and my head nodded.
The tuk-tuk drivers though were no less non-compliant than the cab drivers (or Chennai’s in-famous autokaarans), and it took us a while to get one at our price. I think we finally managed only because both parties wanted desperately to get out of the heat and get moving.
As we sat down and the driver fired up the engine, my friend fired me up too, “Oh, this is going to be fun. We’re going to feel like Bond in that commercial.”
Well, it didn’t, as Bangkok’s roads are as congested as many Indian metros’ during peak hours, plus the City of Angels kind of lives up to its name: drivers are more disciplined – way more disciplined – than people back home, allowing pedestrians right of way/walk all the time. So, we moved along more like Brosnan post-Bond.
Which actually proved to be quite good. Thanks to the easy pace, we were able to catch several sights and scenes that we hadn’t paid much attention to in the confines of the cab to the Palace. Plus, with the tuk-tuk open at the back too, even as we were cooling off, our heads were rotating avian-like in the three open directions. Corner temples, street-food kiosks, Buddha statues and elephant figures in crafts’ stores, high-rise after high-rise, bikers zipping past, fishermen making their way back with their catch… It was a swift montage of Bangkok. And the tuk-tuk being open on three sides helped: you could catch a complete story, like multiple pics stitched together on your smartphone photo app to provide a panoramic view. Why, just when I was marveling how self-regulated the traffic was – compared with riders and drivers back in India plying across every motorable and creating new ones – a duo zipped past on the pavement… in the opposite direction. They were gone by the time I swiveled around to catch them through the back-view. Turning back, my friend and I exchanged smiles. So, it doesn’t happen only in India.
We returned to the hotel, happy with knocking several items off our Bangkok to-do list (including a vehicular one) in one day, and had a Bond moment after all. Not having the exact fare, we let the driver “keep the change”. He beamed back like the manic motorman at the end of the Bond spot. (Was he the same guy, now 20 years older?)
Easing off in the hotel room, I looked back at the day, especially the scenes and sounds during the tuk-tuk ride. I was particularly fascinated by how the tuk-tuk is open on all but one side, and even on the sides, much more than autos back home. For the rains, it seems they do put on plastic sheets, but these are transparent, so you can still see the outside. Also, I did notice a safety cord rolled up on the embarkment side that could be fastened to prevent passengers from spilling out during a specially hefty swerve and becoming roadkill. I also recalled several tuk-tuks crammed with people, something like Chennai’s share autos. (These were all Thai folk; the farangs preferred to hire the tuk-tuks only for themselves, just as friend and I.) So, I guess being so open is a practical thing – to allow air for all the passengers when it’s packed. Or on similar lines, a geographical consideration – with so much heat around, you don’t want your commute to become hot too, so to allow criss-cross-ventilation. Or maybe even a tourism thing – enable visitors to catch a grand sweep of the surroundings, both horizontally (shops and stores) and vertically (skyscrapers), without the need to crick or crane their neck. Sweet.
I then started thinking of tuk-tuks, or autos, back in India. The way they are designed according to the geography and climate of the place.
In Chennai, autos are painted a bright orange-yellow (compared with all-black with just a band of yellow in Mumbai, where I’ve lived the longest and “lived in autos”), perhaps to reflect off the city’s immense heat and thus provide additional comfort to passengers. (For the same reason, why can’t they ply by the meter?)
I also find that the sides of the auto’s roofs in Chennai don’t come down as much as they do in Mumbai (in Mumbai, they come to a bit below the average Indian male’s eye-level), perhaps to allow more air to come in.
I continued exploring in my head. Goa’s autos have a door, possibly to keep out the sand and dust as, I guess, many of them ply to beaches and into village belts, which actually begin soon after city areas.
Delhi’s autos are yellow and green. Light colours, again I guess to not absorb the city’s torrid summer heat. The relatively recent e-autos in Delhi do look similar to the tuk-tuk, but are much smaller and slower. So, razzmatazzy Thai three-wheeler seems to be special in the fashion of being open on three sides. Wow, geography playing a role in product design. Interesting. Though when you think about it, not entirely surprising.
However, it was only when were at Chatuchak market, known to be the world’s biggest weekend market, that Sunday, after soaking in a bit more of Bangkok, when I sought to buy a model tuk-tuk as a souvenir for home, that it struck me, ‘What if the reason (for the tuk-tuk being so open) is not geographical but cultural?’ Maybe it’s open because… the city is a very open city.
The city, and the country, are known as the Sex Capital of the World. (The City of Angels and the City of Sex Angels?) The city that has “happy-ending” massage bars (straight as well as gay) right next to standard bars. The city where on returning from dinner, you see pleasure-girls sitting in the hotel lobby, chatting merrily with the staff while they wait for their customers, and the staff doesn’t snigger, neither at the pleasure-providers nor at the pleasure-seekers. A city where kathoey, or ladyboys (transgender folk), can be themselves openly and hold jobs not just in the flesh and ancillary trades, but even in “respectable” ones such as retail and airlines (the other places I noticed the country’s almost-ubiquitous ladyboys). A city where twenty-somethings walk around with hot-shorts so short they reveal butt-cheeks. Actually, just one. (Or was that because she had got out from the wrong side of a… tuk-tuk?) So, why would the tuk-tuk here not be open? After all, what’s to hide? And who’s judging? At least not, um, openly.
And maybe the same applies to three-wheelers back home. Maybe Mumbai’s autos are black and the sides of the roof come a little lower to shroud you a bit, like a burqa. The black outside (the burqa analogy again) also makes it a bit dark inside, so that fellow commuters can’t have a proper peer-in, in a city that is high on high-rises but low on privacy. For the same reason, perhaps the sides of the roof are just below eye-level so you avoid making eye-contact with other commuters.
Maybe Chennai’s autos are designed to be, or at least feel, as spacious as deeply-desired thani veedus (independent homes): there’s ample light and air coming through. And people looking in is perhaps not such an issue for a city that has middle-aged men walking around in those veedus in vests or even bare-chested and with veshtis hoicked up much of the time.
And what about Goa’s doored autos? That I’ll leave to uncover during my next holiday there, but it does bring me to this question. If privacy is so coveted in a place like Mumbai, how come the autos there are not Goa-style, with doors? Ah, in a city that never sleeps, one that’s ever on the run, in India’s Financial Capital, in time-strapped Mumbai, who has the time to open and close public-vehicle doors, that too when they are in rapid transit? See, it really seems to be a culture thing.
The only thing I knew about Pali Village Café (in Bandra, Bombay/Mumbai) before this was that “Ranbir Kapoor goes there”. This from an ex-colleague and FB friend of mine. Ranbir no doubt goes there with his best pal, Ayan Mukerji, I added to myself. (This from a promo of theirs I watched before the release of their last collab together, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, where they are shown hanging around food joints in Bombay.) And so no doubt, it’s pricey. Despite this pricey perception (and perhaps because of the film-starry perception), my friend and I found myself in it last Sunday afternoon. After the nearby places she had suggested were too small and thus too full and after I put a stop to any more of her choices with the interventive, “I want a place that’s less claustrophobic and more airy, AC or non-AC is not a factor.”
And so we stepped into PVC. And I found it to be both. But no Ranbir Kapoor. (No harm, no? It was a hot, lazy Sunday afternoon, and he could just be there, drowning his post-Kat-breakup sorrows, with or without Ayan.) It was just after core lunch-time, so we found tables aplenty – people were either winding up their Sunday lunch/brunch or a couple of stragglers were entering. We took a table near the entrance. The setting was a charm. Retro/Industrial, exposed brick wall interiors, which seem pretty much to be the norm in hip, happening eateries these days. Not-too-bright, not-too-hot sunlight streaming in through the glass exteriors. The soft tinkle of glasses, china and conversations in the air. A genial-looking gentleman who seemed to be the owner hovering around gently with a smile.
We finished going through the menu (it isn’t that pricey), and Mr Genial came up to our table. His geniality was accentuated up by his salt-and-pepper hair (on the scalp and beard), a stand-out thing for me (as I run this campaign on FB celebrating celebs and folks who dare to keep their gray hair gray, with the hashtag #GrayIsYay). In fact, there was much so much salt and pepper on his visage that if our upcoming food had any shortage of the two condiments we could well have shaken it off his face.
Mr Genial / Salt n Peppa laughed when we asked him if he was the owner, with “I wish!” He said he was “only” the manager. Pleasantries over, we got down to business. My friend was clear about her order. Me, I was happy to notice there was quite a bit of vegan stuff – from quinoa upma to tofu-and-something salad (after reading ‘tofu’, vegan folk, I guess, just glaze over everything else) to smoothies they could make with soy milk if needed – but was still, or rather, due to this, not sure what to go for. I decided to do the best thing when in a quandary: check with Mr Wish-He-Were-Owner. Mr WHWO (his actual name, from what I remember, is either Vishal or Manish Upadhyay) suggested the quinoa upma (as I told him I wasn’t too hungry) and the cinnamon apple ice tea to wash it down with. The ingredients of a pie in a clear, cold tea? I was intrigued.
Our food came quickly enough, and between bites and conversation bytes, I looked around: a few expats and foreigners enjoying an easy Sunday afternoon – a possibly Korean couple with their baby and a couple of possibly Japanese ladies with a possibly Goan host. And of course, my Armenian friend in front of me. Pali Village was a veritable International Village. But still no desi Ranbir Kapoor.
Wondering if the Ranbir Kapoor story was a myth, I ventured to check this with Mr Salt-and-Pepper Upadhyay. He affirmed that RK had indeed come there, but just once, when it had opened, not after that, but the story had carried forward to “RK comes there”. No problemo. The food was good enough. My quinoa upma (I had finally had ki-noah) was A-fine, tasting like upma-meets-broken wheat and the apple-pie-in-a-glass sizzled too, or rather, soothed. Perfectly light, cool stuff for a warm afternoon. In fact, due to the setting and the conversation and the food, I felt the stirrings of drowsiness, and so asked for a coffee. They couldn’t make soy-milk coffee due to the limitations of their machine, so settled for good old americano; but nothing to review there as you can’t go wrong with that good old black coffee.
I paid up, thanked Mr Genial / Salt-and-Pepper / WHWO / Vishal-Manish Upadhyay, and got to get up. And in he walked. No, not Ranbir Kapoor, but another star son. Mimoh aka Mahaakshay Chakraborty, s/o Mithunda. Oh, well, something’s better than nothing. Just what you can say about any vegan-friendly place, I guess. No, wait, PVC actually rocks. Thanks to its numerous vegan options, chilled-out setting, and not the least, a genial and owner-hopeful manager.
You can connect with Pali Village Café on FB here: PVC on FB
Toward the end of his books, Marquez typically reveals the message of the book, either in a subtle manner, as in No One Writes to the Colonel, or spelt-out, as in Love in the Time of Cholera. (He perhaps does this to reward the reader, for having stayed the course and waded through the stream of magical realism – not that you need this, if you’re a Marquez-lover.) In No One Writes, he leaves it to the very last line. Downhearted over their last-remaining scrapings and savings in their old age, the colonel’s wife fears to ask how they’ll now manage, what they’ll eat. The response, in a mix of anger, vehemence, and pride, and coming at the end of a volley of words: “Shit.” In Love in the Time, it’s suitably more romantic, though excrement does make a reappearance: “They had gone past the shit of marriage and family and kids, and went straight to the heart of love.”
Amit Chaudhuri, another of my favourite authors, seems to have done something similar in Calcutta, observations of two years in the city (2009-2011). On the second-last page of the second-last chapter, he keenly observes, “I realise this notion of ‘home’ is an invention: that, though I was born in Calcutta, I didn’t grow up here, and don’t belong here. Each year, I suspect I’ll begin to understand this city better, be more at ease with it: and every year I find this is less true.”
Calcutta seems to be an effort by Chaudhuri to not just understand the Calcutta/Kolkata he came back to (after studying and living in England and growing up in Bombay/Mumbai) but try and adopt his ‘home town’, make it his again. He embarks on this journey in typical Chaudhuri style – warm, moist, and writing non-fiction that’s like fiction (just as his fiction is like non-fiction) – with the delectable and perfectly paced and sized A Purchase. The 19-pager (one of the shortest chapters) draws both Chaudhuri and you into his again-new world, where he ventures to save a vestige of a time fast going by – a French-style slatted green window of a British-era house. Finally getting it into his modern-day apartment in an upmarket area in the heart of the city, he seems happy with the endeavour, like he’s again become a part of the metropolis.
Seemingly buoyed, Chaudhuri goes forth to cover more ground, literally, in the ensuing chapters: traversing and striking up conversations with people on the ever-popular Park Street, the iconic and revamped Flurys, the mansions on Park Street with their street economies… It’s typical Chaudhuri celebration of the everyday, and it’s comforting.
He then steps into more intellectual territory, with discussions of the elections, the change of guard in the state after several years and the people’s feelings about this; he actually goes to several booths, during the actual voting, to speak with voters, campaigners, officials and politicians alike.
He then switches to humanistic ground, with detailings of a middle-aged couple who have seen better days, both physically and financially; of his ageing, ailing father; of foreign chefs who join the city’s hotels/restaurants, and leave soon enough, not being able to adjust their dishes to the tastes and demands of the burgeoning (and bourgeois?) Marwaris; of even domestic help; and finally of more ageing, and even, dying relatives.
But somehow, as the chapters progress, you sense Chaudhuri’s developing disenchantment with the city (although he’s not one to write excitably about things), and a sense of unavoidability at his situation (as his wife and he came back for his ageing parents and also not “wanting to die in a foreign land”), and therefore find the writing getting increasingly academic. It’s like he started the journey enthusiastically (by getting something new into the house – the window), and then realised this (the city) is not somehow he likes, or at the very least, gets; so, his mood begins drooping. As if reflecting this, the last chapter is about an exit, something going out of a house – his ailing aunt eventually passes away.
Calcutta then seems to be less about the city and more about the writer and his attempt to make it his own – in vain. So, though you feel the trademark Chaudhuri writing dipping as the book progresses, there’s still enough of it. Which makes you wonder: If Chaudhuri can still manage to write warm and moist and everyday about a city he eventually, plaintively shrugs off as not one he can call his own, what wonders would he weave about the city he does consider his own? Appropriately, at the beginning of the book, he declares, “I could have grown up in Calcutta, and had a very different relationship with it, but I am a Bombay person.” Now, that’s the book you hope he writes next. At the very least – being in a similar situation myself (living in my “home” town, Chennai, for only 3.5 years of my life, the more recent ones, and having lived in Bombay/Mumbai for the better part, 23 years) – at the very least, I do.
“I want to write”. At about the turn of the millennium, when Janhavi Acharekar was quitting her copywriting job in the ad agency we both were in, and I asked her why, this, in perhaps true Janhavi style, was her simple response. Janhavi has managed to achieve that dream, beginning with pieces in papers and going on to a collection of her stories (Window Seat: Rush-Hour Stories from the City), to travel guides (on Mumbai and Goa), to recently, her first novel, Wanderers, All. In between, among her other literary pursuits like readings, lit-fest curations, and interviews, she was also recognised as a Mumbaikar of the Year, 2009, the same year in which her first book, Window Seat, came out.
Inspired by Janhavi’s ancestral history, Wanderers, All (published by Harper Collins) is the story of two people, separated by time. Murlidhar Khedekar, who moves with his dad from Konkan to old Bombay, begins with dreams of being in Marathi theatre, then moves on to wrestling (kushti), before setting down and growing as a policeman. The other, shorter narrative that punctuates Murli and his kith and kin’s story is that of Kinara, a newly single, seemingly directionless woman of today. The starting point is Kinara’s father giving her Murli and his ancestors’ maps. Kinara and Murli, separated by time, are related by blood: she is his great-granddaughter.
In this email interview, Janhavi talks about the book, her writing motivations and motifs, and the under-appreciated choice/chance of being a wanderer.
IS: I read in one of your other interviews that the idea for Wanderers, All came from a story in Window Seat. Which story is this, and how did that short story lead to this bigger story?
JA: I had a vague idea of the novel I wanted to write, but the story ‘Freedom at Midnight’ in Window Seat was a test run. I was clear about having the Independence movement as the historical setting and began to seriously think of writing Wanderers, All only after I wrote this story. The characters too made their way into the novel. Sudhakar Vernekar, the young, idealistic journalist and freedom fighter in Wanderers, All is the old pensioner in 21st century Mumbai in ‘Freedom at Midnight’. The chief protagonist of the story ‘Birthday Party’ in Window Seat also appears as a younger version of himself in the novel. The book began as an exploration of the lives and times of these characters.
IS: I also read somewhere that the full novel took shape somewhere in the middle of writing it. By this, do you mean the idea of having the parallel story of Kinara, or were you referring to something else?
JA: No, the story of Kinara was the starting point of Wanderers, All – the beginning of the book as you see it today. It was the historical narrative that took shape slowly because I wasn’t entirely sure about how it would progress. Also, the research on Marathi theatre as well as the history of the Bombay City Police slowed me down and then contributed to turns in the narrative. There were times when I didn’t know how Murli’s life would progress. And there was the question of two timelines without making one or the other seem incongruous. Nor did I anticipate the length of the novel. That said, I enjoyed the process of not knowing. I’m not a structured writer who has a clear plot in mind before I begin writing. It evolves as I go along.
IS: Many authors begin their novel-writing journeys with family/ancestral history. There are Marquez, Naipaul, and Rushdie (among my favourites). So, is it an easy starting ground, or was there some other motivation?
JA: Actually, it was our colonial history that was the starting ground for me. That my family had, unwittingly and marginally, been a part of this history made it more enticing. I used familiar terrain to make characters and situations more real. I also added oral history – something that we are losing rapidly in this era.
IS: How was the feeling and experience of retracing your ancestors’ paths? I know you took a road trip in Goa and went on several heritage walks in Bombay…
JA: Thanks to my father’s enthusiasm for travel, I’ve been on several road trips through the Konkan and Goa as a child and then later, on my own as an adult (my familiarity with Goa also comes from the time I wrote the travel guide Moon Mumbai & Goa for Moon Handbooks), so it wasn’t entirely new. Also, I didn’t have the maps and details that Kinara does in the book, so the retracing was both imagined and real, but exciting all the same.
Retracing the history of Bombay was equally interesting. My research led me to fun facts and incidents like the criminal case filed by a British employer against his trusted Parsi clerk for gambling away at the races all the money given to him for safekeeping during the former’s trip to England. Or that the police, for lack of a crowd to line the streets to greet a visiting British official, rounded up beggars and petty criminals from the area, gave them new clothes to wear and had them cheer and clap for a small fee.
But more than anything, it was imagining the era, creating characters and situations around the things I had heard and read about, linking the lives of characters with the story of Bombay (and I see the city as a character in itself) that was for me the most enjoyable part.
IS: Is the book also an attempt to bring Marathi culture, which often loses out to the pop culture and sheen of Bollywood/Bombay, to the foreground?
JA: Not really. I wouldn’t consider myself the flagbearer of any culture. Here, it was integral to my plot and the historical setting. I had a certain level of familiarity with it.
IS: You intend a very thought-instigating, possibly empowering message through the book, that no matter how sorted or scattered we seem, we are all wanderers. Is that even possible in today’s time, when everyone seems so focussed or at least is told/expected to be focussed?
JA: The journeys in Wanderers, All are both physical and metaphorical. The book is more about fluidity of identity and openness in belief and experience. An acknowledgement of the fact that your origins are likely to very different from what you imagine them to be and that nation, religion, community are all human constructs; boundaries, both geographical and cultural, can change in one’s lifetime. Those who hang on to these constructs or derive their sense of self from them will do well to remember that the only thing that binds us is the wandering. But history only proves time and again that there will be those who choose to appropriate rather than embrace, to trespass rather than wander.
We see it all around us today whether in the form of jingoism, religious or cultural chauvinism; the hatred being spewed by various groups against each other comes from their own need for belonging and justification of their prejudices. It’s ironical when local parties in Bombay take an anti-immigrant stance considering that the city was a creation of the British and they are, most likely, descendants of migrants themselves. It’s strange when European nations take pride in their support of freedom or equality given their own history of colonization, or when Americans speak out against the Holocaust given the near-wiping out of the Native Americans and their very recent and continuing history of racism. It’s also easy in the wake of Islamic terrorism to forget the brutalities of the Christian Inquisitions; as for Hindus, they’ve oppressed their own for centuries with the caste system. Let’s not even get into the male-female equation.
So, possible or not in this day and age? It can’t be that hard to be peaceful travel companions. As Kinara’s father tells her when she’s setting out on her solo trip, we’re all on the same journey.
IS: While on that, how much of a wanderer are you?
JA: Considering that I’m late in sending you my response because I was wandering…
IS: Continuing the wanderer bit, you love traveling and photography. How do these feed into your writing, apart from in the obvious ways?
JA: Each lends to the other and everything feeds into writing in some way or the other. This applies to all of us, I think. I write both fiction and travel – travel always brings new experiences and perspectives to the writing table, especially where fiction is concerned, and there’s always storytelling involved in good travel writing, so the two intersect at some point. Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is both travel narrative and engaging storytelling (some say, even fictional in parts), while you find a lot of Hemingway’s travel experiences in his fiction. While Kinara’s story is fictional, her travels are based on my own road trips.
IS: Your style is very simple and soft-spoken, or at least, not loud. Is this a natural trait, or something you’ve cultivated?
JA: I prefer a subdued, matter-of-fact style so as to let the story emerge and provoke readers into drawing their own conclusions. Cultivating a style is tricky because it could get self-conscious and might not ring true. (Although one’s tone, or voice, could change depending on the character or story being told, which is bound to affect the style in some way. Kinara’s is a younger, contemporary voice different from the traditional historical narrative.)
IS: The name pun seems to be an emerging motif in your writing. There was the lovely ‘China’ in Window Seat and now ‘Raj/Swaraj’ in Wanderers. Is this perhaps due to the copywriter in you?
JA: And there’s ‘Play it again, Sam!’ too in Window Seat. Yes, advertising is great training ground for a writer simply because it teaches you to play around with words and not to take yourself too seriously. It loosened me up, apart from teaching me to write to insane deadlines and create an unbelievable amount of excitement around mundane things like automotive lubricants and office storage cabinets. And, of course, to pun. Ad people keep showing up in my work, whether in Kinara’s travels or in my short stories. An agency is (or at least used to be) a lively place filled with people with a great sense of humour. I would like to believe that it has rubbed off on my writing somehow, if ever so slightly.
IS: Kinara’s arc is as absorbing as Murlidhar’s. Was there a thought to extend it beyond the space it occupies now? Is there, for instance, a novella about her waiting in the wings?
JA: Thank you. Kinara’s is just a hint of a character in that sense because the historical is the dominant narrative. A woman who is independent, in search of nothing in particular, and who finds friends, parties, new places and experiences along the way.
Like I said, I’m never sure about the direction my work is going to take. Sometimes, I feel that I’m done with a story but not with the characters, so to answer your question, yes, it’s a possibility.
IS: Finally, what next, apart from the continuing promotion of the book?
JA: Writing 🙂
And here’s about Irficionado > Irficionado: Here’s Presenting…