"To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin, that makes calamity of so long life."

- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; 1885

Sunday, August 12, 2012

An Evening of Conjectures.

The best cure for a writer's block - a note pad, a pen and Lodhi Gradens. :)


What is it that brings them here,
This city garden, lover's lair?
Is it the golden greenness of the sunshine,
The sway of the trees in pre-shower squall?

Is it the trailing paved pathways
Where they stride with hurried steps,
To heat their blood
And cool their temperament.

Is it the shrill screeching of chipmunks,
Reprimanding you for trespassing
Their earth and skies, like you did them,
On your roads and rooftops.

Is it the slight opportunities
Of reservedly declaring your love
Lying next to each other on cool, cushy, sod
Fingers carelessly intertwined?

Or maybe the convenience of resting your head
Against his chest, seated on a tawdry green bench
Listening to nature’s teeming noises
Against the rhythmic backdrop of consistent heartbeat?

Or did you, like me,
Come here to clear your head
Of the nitpicks and cluck-clacks,
The humdrum and why-what-wheres?

Did you too wish
To leave behind, bricks and mortar
That remind you of the morbidity
Of skyscraper ambitions?

Did you, like me, weighed down by the sheer
Multitude of choices, each claiming a happy-ending
Drift here; for once letting your feet
Make their way instinctively, without your head leading.

Did you, like me, crave to be present among
Wild berries fallen in a merry rot,
A gifted feast to the odd, fidgety squirrel,
Reminding you of a once familiar smell.

That of your childhood backyard –
Of damp earth and berriness and decay and tree sap –
Educating you that life has pace
And that there is no return to those days of easy volition and simple joys.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Girl Who Never Stopped Seeing.

She never let a moment in life pass her by, unwitnessed.

As a child, she watched her mother knead dough - pressing the watered flour with all her bodily force concentrated on her palms - the manner in which she often pressed her grandmother's thighs to relieve her of pain. She watched as ma placed a bindi on her forehead, exactly in between her two furrowed brows, her eyes fluttering in the process. She watched as her father embraced ma, while he believed she wasn't looking.

She watched as they were taken to the hospital after the accident, each as close to dead as it is possible while being alive. She noticed her father's blood smeared face as they rushed him to the operating room. She saw her mother's left thigh reduced to a pulp. When her grandmother tried to cover her eyes with her hands, she insisted on seeing. She did not selectively observe - it was the dirty, the unfair, the morbid, the ugly that deserved to be seen as much as the beautiful.

She looked at men and women defecate next to the railway track, when she took that train to Delhi. She saw the invisible people - the ones who sheltered themselves under a flyover; the ones who sat on the pavements stretching their arms out at each passerby; the ones who knocked at the windows of your car at a traffic signal, while you looked away - she looked at them straight in the eye. She didn't always offer help; that wasn't her intention. She merely watched them, acknowledged them, heard them beg and wail, and when the light turned green, she moved on. Often she stood under the street lamp and saw people move like shadows in the dusk.

At nights, she lapsed lucidly into dreams, where she witnessed herself soar, make love with abandon, encounter kindly beasts and ghastly humans. Once she watched her knees as they jerkily advanced one step at a time, while she ran over clear streams and meadows. Once she saw herself running straight up the mountains, defying gravity. Once she helplessly saw herself fall from a precipice. In many, many dreams she found herself each night, and lost herself each morning, as amorphous dreams faded into sunlight - she watched herself slip from the asleep, into the waking.

If moving was her life's vocation, then seeing, was its divine purpose. And so she saw, everything she could see -obsessively, compulsively, uncompromisingly and with retired voyeurism. Till eventually her eyes gave up on her uncanny obsession.

And her life carried on, without purpose, its vocation.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Girl Who Collects Facades.

Her life had turned into a masquerade.

Her aim was to obscure the self - to conceal behind masks. Her means were not lies, for she had no talent for fiction. She merely let the various possibilities of herself emerge, live and die - all in a single day. Every night she climbed on that stage, as a brunette, as a blonde, as a fiery redhead. Facilely she removed each article of clothing, while each onlooker imagined her assuming a distinct role for him - a Goddess, a damsel, a slave, a child in need of loving, an erotic promise, an object of fantasy. Nakedness was her favourite guise; her vocation itself, a celebration of human yearning.

Each night she would choose carefully, an adept lover from among the beholders - the one whose eyes didn't easily give away the role he had chosen for her. Every lover, in his act of love-making, was an aide in discovering a new indentity of her evanescent self. She would play the character well - a sinner, a savior, a deity, a juvenile, a voyeur. Until the time came to dismiss him, to pull away the facade and to add the mask safely to the collection.

Contrary to the precedent of the fairy tale, it was at midnight that she turned into a princess; and the bed into an unbreachable fortress from which lovers were hurriedly evicted, their proposals of making love and breakfast in the mornings, slightly dismissed. A shared meal was both unnecessary and unceremonious. To wake up each morning, naked and quite alone among satin sheets, was the first sacred rite of self worship. Satin slipped revealing a perfect form as she moved among wood and marble. The playthings of the night before, the only evidence and reminders of who she had been, were neatly returned to the drawer.

The last of the disgruntled neediness that had built up like a stalagmite, over years of believing in the cause for ineffability and perpetuation of love, had eventually been dispensed away. And no one had noticed, not even she herself. Until one night a noble proposition by a lover - an insistence on spooning through the night - which was obviously declined, had brought it to her attention that there had been no lasting love, because the need had been felt only for lovers and not for love itself.

The only permanent thing was the fortress, to which she returned each night.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Turning and Turning, the Widening Tyre...

Yeats stands mondegreen-ed by Gypsy Noir.

The little demigod hanging unto the rear view mirror oscillates. Our perfect heads bob rhythmically. We're on a "Little Miss Sunshine-esque" family trip. I'm perched on the backseat, 'The Nice and Acurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter' in my hands, earphones clung snugly - roadtripping with my favourite allies.

Katrina Kaif has conquered Hazaribagh. Her luscious pout sticks out from every corner, droplets of mango drink invitingly resting on them. Vodafone peaks through other billboards in competition. Ramshackle huts lend their road-facing facades to other enticing consumerist agendas - "Night Label Local Whiskey", "Chotanagpur Homemade Batteries" and "Cure 95 Sex Problems Without Medicines - Guaranteed Results or Money Back".

That "Ranchi Road" is a town in itself, is a discovery. Presently, it rained in torrents while we passed the local railway station. A haggard jeep whirls on keeping pace with us. It is carrying 8 men inside it, 8 clinging on to its corners, and 8 and a goat sitting on top - villagers all, dressed in gaudy sequined kurtas now dripping in rain, off to see the Dussehra celebrations at town grounds. Only the goat bleats in distress. Its driver is a young lad of the soil and sunbaked in a way that makes his white teeth shine in contrast. As I look at him, he consciously runs his fingers through his hair.

A waning sun sneaks out from among evening clouds and stares directly at me. I shuffle my ipod to a suitable song - guitar loudly strums reverberating through my bones. When I shut my eyes, the sun is reduced to a shining green blob of nothingness on a bright orange screen. When I open my eyes again, it is still chasing me from behind solitary sheesham trees along the road, telephone poles and partly constructed water tanks, till trucks corner us on either side. Their tyres are thickly soiled. The loam beside the road is blackened with leaking diesel. Potholes are the size of craters, which in any other country would invite speculations of possible meteor strike.

There's a part of the legend they omitted to tell you from when Sita cursed the cow, for I'm certain she later made concessions and added "but then, dear Cow, you'll rule the roads of India till the end of the time".

Nothing is pretty, unless you are the beholder in whose eyes beauty itself lies.

Why do I love it? Because imperfection has a character that perfection can never hope to achieve.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Chronicles of the Middle Kingdon [Part IV] (Full and Final)

[In continuation of Chronicles of the Middle Kingdom [Part - III]]

The trailing account of my visit to China are true and accurate, and mostly honest. I've been trying to pull off bit of the ol' Jack Kerouac, and miserably failing at that. I'm frantically chronicling everything, every hour, every event, every frikin' step taken and place lived at, but not every sentiment.
For all the fun and frolick that I had surrounded myself with, I still felt like Forrest Gump, running away from something. References to the past incidents made their way into our merry conversations every few hours, not in a sad, desperate way, but in a pensive, studied manner. They included recalling and retelling the chronicle of events several times, justifications and considered silences, and were dotted with several 'y'knows' and 'I-was-like-s' and 'he-was-like-s', as such conversations usually are. The way in which a tongue keeps returning to tease a blister in the mouth, not allowing it to heal. I wasn't heartbroken anymore, or doubted even for a moment that I was over it for good. But it seemed like a gaping hole had been left open, which indicated that something in life had been missing but I couldn't quite put my fingers on what it was, and mostly I was just trying to fill that damned gaping hole with fun, fun, fun - as if fun was any sort of a replacement for happiness. Though happy I was quite often, sometimes even euphoric, but that deep seated contentment had abandoned me. That mother-of-all-fucked-up feeling that accompanies a love-loss, had been assuaged long back, but its lingering, nauseous aftertaste followed me through a range of enjoyable distractions and indulgences, from Delhi to Beijing to Hangzhou and back to Beijing, like a lurking shadow. Occasionally when the distractions were bright enough, like a midday sun they would make the shadow disappear, and I would silently assure myself - 'really, I'm so much better of on my own!' and 'life's done me good!', and 'oh thank God its over!' and I did not for a moment believe them to be untrue, but the scheming shadow would play peek-a-boo every once in a while and throw at me the 'why me-s' which at one go would collapse my assurances like mere dominoes.
And so back to Beijing I came from Hangzhou, the shadow clinging close by my heels. That night we went to Yugong Yishan for a reggae concert to celebrate Bob Marley's birthday, which was one of those midday-sun-type, happy-happy, joy-joy events and I verily drank like a truant little teenager; and swayed to reggae music; and shared a drag of some good stuff with a Bob Marley doppelganger complete with dreadlocks; and danced with a suave Italian. One mad African singer of a reggae band playing that night, took much of a liking to Naj. He so totally fronted her that some men lifted her up and put her on stage where he almost started to grind against her. She hid her face, pleading all the while "I can't be seen like this, I'm a diplomat! Please don't take photos! What if someone told the Ambassador!", while we guffawed our hearts out. I punched the lurking shadow in the face, and asked it never to return again.

But return, it did, and with vengeance, the next day. For the day that I had reserved for my most-awaited Chinese mission - The Great Wall - was the most lugubrious of all; the sky was inky, the air thick, the sun uninterested. Cold and grey feed a shadow and strengthen it. My lightfootedness eventually transformed into treads heavy with the weight of the thick overcoat and gumboots and the past, and my legs felt tired of running away. All through the way to the Wall on the mini-bus, while the guide (a young Chinese girl who spoke considerably good English) gave us a tour of tombs of various Chinese rulers, the past reeled like a film in my head. It was midday by the time we reached the Wall. No one chose to hike all the way up to the Wall. I presume because no one felt particularly adventurous on such an uninviting day. We all took the ropeway up the the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, and by the time we reached up, the sun was up again and I was breathing easy and trying to let go, once again.

The Mutianyu Great Wall isn't the most popular of the various sections of the Great Wall, because it isn't the closest to Beijing. But this meant much fewer tourists and much more space to run about. The entire Wall was our playground - we posed, jumped, sat, jumped again, ran about like mad freaks, stretched out hands, stretched our legs, climbed up stairs, jumped down, posed some more, drank some water, ate some snickers, and took many many photos. Of all the historical places I have visited, the Wall is my favourite. I was informed that in spring-time the cherry trees on sides of the Wall come to life, and I almost wished I could be back in spring just for that! The cherry on top of the cake was the giant slide through which one slides down the Great Wall, adding an element of thrill to the expedition. That night the girls got together and watched all sorts of chic-flicks, and Naj and I spoke some Madagascar-speak, which are our insider jokes and are incredibly funny to us even if repeated for the 11869545th time.
With my last day at Beijing fast approaching, Naj had another exceptional culinary experience planned out for me. The Chinese Hot Pot! Restaurants that specialize in Hot Pot have special menus which contain everything raw you may want to cook yourself and eat. The tables have two kinds of broths brewing fresh over a burner underneath the table, one spicier than the other. You may choose the ingredients you want brewing inside each broth. We ordered for mushrooms, steak, sweet potatoes, noodles, varieties of meat and...duck blood. Duck blood came as coagulated red jelly which once inserted and cooked in the broth didn't really taste any different from anything else. Among a selection of sauces, you create your own special sauce - mine included primarily mushroom sauce, peanut sauce and mustard sauce, and bits of other sauces. You pick the cooked ingredients directly from the Hot Pot, mix it with the sauce and eat it. I liked the steak the best.

My final day in Beijing was a day done, perfectly Sex and the City style. Naj, Lysh, Carole and I went for brunch at Colibri: Coffee, Cupcakes and Fine Eats, which took its "fine eats" part quite seriously! The rest of day we spent shopping - I bought a total of 5 shoes, including boots in 4 different colour and several dresses and put Naj's bargaining skills to quite a test. Whatever I saved in the bargain though, I spend twice as much paying for extra baggage later.
The last and the freakiest of my great Chinese cultural experience had been saved for the last. The girls and I went for a Chinese massage. The massage itself was a much-deserved at the end of this whole week of running about all over China. But Then, the masseuse convinced me to try "fire cupping". Frankly, he merely muttered something in Chinese, which was roughly translated by Carole to me as "you have a lot of bad energy inside your body because of spices and hot food and you should balance that with the fire cupping therapy". I had no clue what fire cupping meant, but getting rid of bad energy sounded all zen and spiritual to me, given the state of affairs, so I said "Okay". It was only after he started sticking cups all over my back, practically immobilizing me that I was informed that the hideous flaming red marks take about 2 weeks to fade away. Getting rid of bad energy wasn't exactly as life-changing as I had expected it to be. I have no regrets though. I have grown up on an ardent belief that any new experience is a good experience. And I was only more glad to have some marks to show off, as evidence of my Chinese adventure, like a tan after vacationing at a beach.
Just as my Chinese vacation came to an end, there were more and more fireworks all over the town, presumably because the Chinese New Year week had come to an end, but I took it to be China's ceremonious send-off to me.

Vacations don't satiate my inconsolable wanderlust. If anything, they leave me pining for more, like two droplets of water to a parched throat. But if I were to simply think in terms of the things I value most in life - including fun, friendship, seeing and doing new things and staying in a constant state of motion - my Chinese visit summarized all that I want out of life. And by the end of it all, as I realized there's so much more to see and do and experience if you open yourself up to the world outside, the gaping hole seemed considerably smaller and defeated.

My return flight to Delhi was via Guangzhou. An American boy, around 19 years of age, came up to me asking if I was going to India too. The kid reminded me of my cousin and we stuck around together for most of the journey back. He had been raised in China and was traveling to Rajasthan in India to assist in some humanitarian projects during his gap year. At the Guangzhou airport, he sat learning and practicing Hindi sincerely from his little book of "teach yourself Hindi" and asked me his doubts every now and then. At the Delhi airport, he asked me if I knew any good hostels, and after a moment of consideration, I invited him to stay the night at my place. I offered him chawal, dal and sabzi at night and let him sleep on the couch.
Next day, as I helped him get an auto to the railway station, on my way to work, he remarked "Thanks, I hope all the good karma pays off."
My thoughts went to a day, seven years back, when a sweet girl had allowed a complete stranger like me to stay the night at her place in Hyderabad and had fed me tuna sandwich the next morning. Today, she is one of my dearest friends and we had just had a vacation together after several years. Since that day, seven years back, I have never denied a well-deserving soul a couch for a night and some food.

"Just pay it forward, Johnyboi." I told him and drove off to work.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Chronicles of the Middle Kingdom [Part - III]

[In continuation of Chronicles of the Middle Kingdom [Part - II]]

A vacation within a vacation, is reason to rejoice twice, right? Especially when you unexpectedly find yourself in the midst of dramatic scenery (unexpectedly, because you expect it to be comparable a tourist city in India, and it completely exceeds all your expectations.)

So, yes, Hangzhou was divine. Marco Polo was here; and he called it the "City of Heaven". How could I have not known of its existence till just about a week back?! And yet, here I was, owing to certain unexpected turn of events, which made me join the girls on this trip at the last moment. Sweet serendipity.

Being in Hangzhou was like little packages of pleasant surprises being delivered to you, one at a time. Every next thing - a delightful discovery; every stage - a turn up for the book. Historically, the city has been one of the most important trade zones on the Yangtse river delta. It lies cradled among hills and the majestic West Lake, which was recently made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO describes it as having "influenced garden design in the rest of China as well as Japan and Korea over the centuries," and reflecting "an idealized fusion between humans and nature." Now, now, you just have to be there to understand what that meant. And I'm already feeling all "holier-than-thou" about it, since I was there, and you weren't! Seriously though, it wasn't just the sight-seeing at Hangzhou that makes it so special to my heart. A person's kinship to a place is usually a function of his/her experiences therein and the people who keep you company. I definitely had the best company possible. And so far as memorable, delightful experiences are concerned, Hangzhou was, in Naj's words - "like the little cherry, on top of the regular cherry, on top of the sundae of awesomeness!". Cheesy, innit? Oh, but it was!

We arrived at the Ming Town International Hostel at around 5 p.m., from the airport. It is located in the city centre and yet next to the Lake itself, but then again, in Hangzhou, nothing ever is too far from the Lake. I like backpacking-hostels. I wish we had more of these in India. The rates are lesser than half the price of hotels. You get to share your dorms with other people and therefore there's a much higher chance of making new friends. Our room, which had two bunk beds and could accommodate four people in all, was clean and had a view of a cafeteria below. We shared it with another Chinese girl from Beijing. What I found most exciting though, was that the wooden roof had a little sunscreen, which could be uncovered for some direct sunlight or a sight of the stars above, at night. Needless to say, we hardly spent any nights in the hostel, so that never came much to our use. But imagine living in a little wooden cabin, where you sleep on the top bunk of a bed, and you can touch the sloping wooden roof and uncover a little piece of the sky all to yourself while you slip lucidly into dreamworld!

We did not slip into the dreamworld though. Instead, we slipped straight into our Explorer-Mode. There was an equitable, skill-based, division of labour. Carole, with her superior Chinese-speaking skills and her even more superior map-reading skills, was designated the "Destination-cum-Tour Guide". Naj with her superior photo-clicking skills and her even more superior skill of bargaining with the Chinese, in Chinese, got to be the "Photographer-cum-Shopping Guide". And yours truly, with her superior posing skills and even more superior parasitic skills of getting by with a little help from her friends, became the "Poser-cum-Tourist". (Although, I must tell you that my "party-starting" skills came in quite handy during the trip.)

We got out on the streets in the dusk. Carole, her head buried in the guide book, would point to a direction, and say "go" and we went. Naj, after every few meters, would say "pose" and we posed. And I, well, I just went and I posed. Then, God decided to make things a little more interesting, and a Chinese man on a moped, crashed straight into Naju while she was crossing a main road. The man's moped toppled, he fell off on the street, quickly straightened his hat, grabbed his bike and left in a jiffy, seemingly embarrassed, but without saying sorry. While my lady stood there, not having dodged even a millimeter from the spot where the moped had crashed into her, wearing her high heeled boots and with that hugeass camera dangling from her neck, looking somewhat like a superwoman. "How did you manage to do that!?" She shrugged. That - was a scene straight out of a Chinese comedy film - if you know what I mean.

Hefang Street, our first tourist destination, is a mela of sorts. Quaint shops sell variegated artifacts from far-off lands and of course, from China. Ethereal Chinese calligraphy on delicate parchments; motley opera masks; African Djembe; Bohemian dirndls and paintings of Indian deities - Hangzhou definitely lived up to its reputation of a major ancient trade centre of China. On Hefang Street, artists, buskers, juggles, milliners, painters, crystal workers, confectioners abound. Here, a man gingerly implanted a ship into a glass bottle while the onlookers held their breath; there, another, crafted a crystal palace straight out of a fairytale. Some displayed the Celestial Guardians of Feng Shui carved in Jade. The Dragon - its gaping mouth breathing out the life-force Chi; the Tortoise - harbinger of long life and health; the Laughing Buddha - epitome of prosperity and happiness; the Jade Family Balls - mystical inveigler of love, preserver of generations. A giant golden Laughing Buddha sits fat in the middle of Hefang street, its belly pregnant with good cheer, ready to be fondled by one and all. In the middle of all this, a little girl sat drawing on her sketch book. And thank God for that - to be surrounded with so much art and yet not to be drawn into inspiration would be a shame.

We munched on some chestnuts, then some peanut and sesame brittles fresh off the oven and then Carole directed us to the food-street, a narrow go-between a little off the Hefang Street, which serves people's taste for the exotic and the bizarre. The problem was that I could not understand what most of the items on display really were, since when asked we were told only their Chinese names, and neither of us could translate them into English. What looked like a curious case of fried worms on a stick, turned out to be merely octopus tentacles. I developed quite a taste for them though. Crabs were the second best of them all, crisp on the outside with subtle seasoning and soft and pulpy within. Dinner later at a recommended restaurant at Hefang Street was pretty uneventful as compared to the food-adventure at the food-street.

After the dinner, we went for a walk to the lake. Cities settled around a lake develop a distinctly peaceful culture - the calmness and placidity of still waters seems to permeate into the daily lives of people. The boulevards around the West Lake are dotted with shady trees, little benches and pedestals. In the stillness of the night the distant Leifeng Pagoda, shone brightly among the hills. I could think of nothing merrier than breaking out into my favourite girl-vacation song: "I have never dreamed it, have you ever dreamed a night like this?"

And just like that, a-night-like-this ended with some drinks at the Night & Day Bar and some live music. And three very happy girls went to bed in a little wooden cabin dreaming of a new day with new adventures.

Early next morning we set out vagabonding once again. The city looked twice as glorious as the night before. But the most impressive revelation of the day was the most common mode of public transport in Hangzhou - Bicycles! In retrospect, I doubt that any other mode of public transport makes any sense in Hangzhou (though the streets are full of Aston Martins, BMWs and Porches). In such a gorgeous city, one ought to go slow, feel the soft breeze on one's face and look about in fascination. Bicycles are ubiquitous in Hangzhou. You can get a punch card from any of the many booths by paying 100 Kuai (but that's only a deposit which is returned to you once you replace the bike at the end of the day). To pick a bicycle, you have to tap the card unto the stand and that unlocks your ride. You may replace it at any other stand in the city. So long as you keep replacing your bike in different stands every one hour, your ride is free. Even if you pay though, the charges are minimal, about 2-3 Kuai per hour, and the first hour is free.

Naj struggled with balancing her cycle a little bit, but when we guffawed at her amateurish biking, she threatened us with showing off her prowess at swimming next time we vacation at a beach. That shut me up atleast. And off we went, all over the town - on bikes, by foot, by boat and once by a mini bus. We took a ferry to the Lesser Yingzhou Isle (Three Pools Mirroring the Moon), which is the largest island within the West Lake, but has three pools inside, making it look like an island, within an island, within an island. We trailed the route to the place where the legendary white snake met her lover, and there each of us took turns to strike the pose of a snake, much to the chagrin of the entirely prudish Chinese people who probably thought we were kooks. We went to the Red Carp Pond where schools of carp swam underneath the transparent pool adding shades of orange to the waters. We ate bruchetta and cheese cake at a Costa Coffee next to the lake. And we cycled back to the hostel, to catch some sleep before going out to get a taste of the night-life of the city - exhausted, yet utterly delighted.

We picked up a city tourist magazine from the Hostel's reception and looked up some recommendations for dinner and clubbing. That night we dined at Grandma's Kitchen, whose impeccable reputation and popularity demanded that we wait for a whole hour before our turn to be assigned a table. It definitely lived up to its reputation. The restaurant offers a graphic menu where one can decide upon the fare, literally by the face of it. With my tummy feeling rich inside, I only needed some alcohol in my veins and some serious dancing to seal the day.

But here's the thing with Chinese clubs and pubs (and typically so, as I was informed, with the ones in Hangzhou) - Chinese people's idea of having fun, is to sit and drink and look at people. While the clubs are ostentatiously and dramatically decorated (to an extent that in one club I almost imagined that I'd see Helen jump out and perform her cabaret, old bollywood style), the people themselves are stoic and unwelcoming, except for the club staff to some extent, but then they need to make money. We began at Suzie Wong where we told the manager that we only wanted to dance. But then we looked around and there was only one girl (who seemed to have been paid to do so) dancing on a central stage and people stared at her. We thought we'd try it anyways, since the music was pretty good (and I live in India, like heck I care about people staring!). But then just as we thought the music was really picking up and started swinging to the new single by Black Eyed Peas, the music was stopped. Next arrived two men and three women painted in white from head to toe, displaying some really ridiculous Chinese opera dance moves, in such complete contrast to BEP. How. Very. Lame. And out of place. We hung out for a little while longer, primarily because we were caught by surprise, and this time WE stared (and I remember screwing up my lips in distaste a little bit), but then we decided to just move on.

The next club was better, since we got stools by the bar and thought we might as well drink some before moving on someplace else. The music was again pretty good, but the DJ was hopelessly expressionless, and that just killed it for me. That, was until the point he played THIS.

"Oh my God, are you serious? How can someone play this song, while being so expressionless! I doubt any of these people understand what's being said in this song."

Well, atleast that song got us out of our stools, got us dancing and pushed the mood. Carole looked further for any better recommendations in the city magazine, and we followed it to another club area. Once out of the cab, we heard some Lady Gaga, and followed the music up to a new discovery. A club full of Indians! In the entire day in Hangzhou, I hadn't seen even one Indian. The Indian manager of this new club was a medical student in China, who was trying hard to sell the place as an expat hangout. Much bonding happened as he informed me that he was from Saddi Dilli. I looked at his T-shirt which read "King of the Fuckin' University" and declared "Of course you are a Delhi-Boi!". He gave us a very good deal on the drinks, and though the club was emptier than the first two - it seemed more fun. Other Indian men came up and spoke to me in Hindi, and it sounded like music to my ears in this strange land. This is where I got to be the party starter. I got on stage, on table tops and God knows where else. As the legend goes, dear Reader, I carried "party" in my pockets like pixie dust and sprinkled it around. But since that was our last day, infact our last few hours in Hangzhou, we had to call it a night just when the Indian men were extending to us invites to other party scenes around town.

The Sisterhood of Fidgety Feet left Hangzhou at 6 a.m. in the morning, on a flight back to Beijing. But I retained a part of Hangzhou with me forever.

[To be Contd...]

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Chronicles of the Middle Kingdom [Part - I]

"Are you going to Canada too?" asked the girl who stood behind me in the relatively short check-in queue of Southern China Airlines at Terminal 3, Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi. "No. To China." I said. We were both taking the same flight to Shanghai. "Oh, I thought you were on transit to elsewhere." Indians don't usually prefer to vacation in China, and Chinese return the sentiment. I asked her for a pen to fill up the immigration form. I learnt meanwhile that most of my fellow travelers were on their way to Vancouver, via Shanghai. There was only one Chinese man in line. He looked lost.

At the immigration check, my face was briefly scanned. The officer stamped my passport, then smiled and gestured at me to carry on. Others weren't quite so lucky. At the next kiosk, a man was under skeptical scrutiny of another ignorant officer.
"I have never heard of Bangui. Where is it?"
"It is in Central African Republic." said the man, nervously defensive.
"Where is that?"
"Err...in Africa."
"Why are you going there?"
"On work - in the construction industry. Being deputed by the government on a developmental project there."
The officer looked askance at the piece of paper which the man had produced as a work permit; it was sealed and stamped, and had some lines scribbled in French which were unintelligible to him. I wondered if I should intervene and tell him that CAR indeed exists - that it is in Africa and its capital is Bangui. I decided against it and moved on.

T3 attempts to look ambitiously avant garde - the aesthetic effect created by Bharatnatyam padams arranged in a welcome before the Duty Free shops, is however, mitigated by the dismal brown carpets that stretch on either side across the various gates. I wondered what happened to the poor man at the customs. On the flight, I sifted through the pages of "The Finkler Question". Having finished reading about a quarter of the book, I still didn't know what to think of it, so I dozed off instead. I got up to a recorded announcement in English that conveyed that we would land in Shanghai airport in a short while.

At the Shanghai Airport, there was no one to help the Indian(s) who had to take a domestic transit instead of an international one. I toured the massive airport, pointing out to people my printed e-ticket to Beijing and using the most rudimentary english "Flight to Beijing. Go where?". After a few "No speak English" responses, a guard directed me towards the domestic terminal. After another hour of figuring out how-tos and where-froms, skillfully employing animated gesticulations and stunted english, I was on the next flight to Beijing.

I had wanted desperately to go to China for a vacation; but more so, for a friendship. Naju is a friend - a kindred spirit rather - who I have known for 6 years now. Naj and I have been close friends since we were both studying in our respective colleges in Hyderabad. We Skyped and Gtalked often, updating each other about developments in our lives. I stalked her Facebook photos and very publicly envied all the fun she had been having without me. However, the trigger that finally brought both of us together, was that the year 2010 had fucked both of us (like it had done many others) and we decided, that some girl-time fun again, for the sake of good ol' days, had been long overdue. Yet, upon arriving at the Beijing Airport, excitement betrayed me - in a manner that it usually betrays you when you're aware that peregrination has come to an end and the destination has been reached. Besides - my blackberry wouldn't work in China and I had no watch - I had lost the concept of time. It was liberating, but also mildly frustrating, as, in between my slumber, day dreaming and traversing international time lines, I had no clue for how long I had been traveling.

The uncertainity of my China trip - which had continued till the very last moment owing to work commitments, had not allowed the excitement of a vacation to build up. I hadn't been perusing the pages of glistening travel magazines for spectacular photographs of the Land of the Dragon. I hadn't been looking for "10-out-of-ordinary-things-to-do-when-in-Beijing". I hadn't been dreaming about the fun I'll be having. Instead, I had been spending long hours in the office to be able to afford this break. And I had almost cancelled my tickets the week before. The cumulative effect of the process of ultimately reaching Beijing, was that this silly languidness had descended upon me. I made my way to the conveyor belt and waited.

"There you are - my dear Indian Hobbit!" said Naju, tapping on my shoulders and flashing that toothy smile. I should have hugged her. Instead I blinked and stared before I mustered a few words - "How did you get inside the airport beyond customs barriers?" In my defense, that was a valid question. "Did you forget that I am diplomat? My position comes with certain privileges bebe." She winked, while helping me with my luggage. Naj speaks English with a diction which I cannot quite place. It is a confluence of accents she has imbibed from the various places she has lived at - her native islandic Maldivian, mixed with a little bit of Indian or a hint of Sri Lankan, a trace of Singaporean too, maybe, but I'm not quite sure of that; definitely none of Chinese though. When she speaks, her lips curl into an earnest pout at the end of every sentence, which makes the light brown in her eyes sparkle. This endearing manner of articulation, along with her beautiful square face and small islandic features make her inordinately attractive.

Outside the airport, the city lay frozen and densely grey, like Picasso's Guernica. February is cold in China. For me, cold equals gloom. However, I expected to see snow; I have never had the opportunity. "Snow isn't overrated" quipped Naj, while in the cab. "Plus, I told you this is the best time to come to China. It is Chinese New Year time. We get a whole week off! Chinese people don't have religions and so they don't have many other festivals. They wait all year to celebrate the new year. It's so festive, with lanterns and fireworks and what not. It's a big event. The streets of Beijing won't be as crowded as they usually are because most of the working crowd go back to their hometowns. Oh, we have a New Year dinner tonight with friends. Let the fun begin!" Her characteristic enlivening warmth slowly extinguished the hebetude that had engulfed me after the journey.

We resumed talking about the past, the present, the year that had gone by. We talked about the end of her 7 year old relationship. We talked about my forced separation with the Man. We talked like old friends talk - empathizing and hopeful for each other.

By the time we reached her apartment in the Diplomatic Enclave, a thick dusk had engulfed the grayness and the city lights had emerged, blinking and gay. Finally the realization of being in Beijing, and not in Delhi; of being in 2011 and not in 2010, sank in.

Solace for a wanderlusting soul, albeit with an aching heart, lies in the act of motion. For escapists like me, travel physically and palpably manifests the progression of time - an irrefutable evidence of moving on - of leaving something behind, be it the past or the spaces we have occupied or the moments we have lived. So long as we're moving - some call it running away, others call it running towards - we hurt much lesser.

I saw the first firework shooting up the sky from a window of Naju's swanky apartment, rendered warm and cozy by central heating. This eve of the Chinese New Year insinuated a new beginning.

[...to be Contd.]