Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Taste Of Nostalgia

Everyday-spices lined up on the kitchen platform. Myriad ingredients filling the kitchen cabinets. Vegetables that crowd the refrigerator trays.

Harmless. But potent.

Every once in a while you reach out for them but end up opening a bigger jar…of memories. And you land up right in the middle of a moment, tasting forgotten flavours.

The pepper grinder that smells like weekday dinners of Daddy’s favourite Pindimiriyam, the flavor hitting the back of your throat. And Charu-Annam with Kandi-Pacchadi, their distinct flavours blending together in a magical combination. A crate of eggs bringing back a Sunday lunch of Anda Curry that Mummy used to make for Daddy because he liked it so much…prohibited pleasures. Even the sad excuse available in the name of Okra takes you to summer afternoons, lunch plates filled with Bhindi ki Sabzi, Aamras and Phulka. Fresh bunches of cilantro resurrect the surprisingly rare Dosa with Hari Dhaniya Chutney. The ginger you are grating into the evening tea hints at Bamma’s Allam Pacchadi served with Pesarattu. And then her Rava Payasam. Special invitation dinners over Attaiya’s signature Dum Aaloo. Fun evenings involving homemade Bhel. Festival lunches with Mummy’s signature Sevvaiyya Payasam and Attaiya’s Tomato/Imli Pulihora and Shrikhand. The Pav Bhaji made for Sis’s birthday every single year. Mango milkshake. Aam Panha. Puranpoli. Avakai. Dosakai Pacchadi. Bengali Khichdi. Baingan Ki Sabzi. Masale Bhaat. Pulusu

Sweet. Sour. Bitter. Hot. And everything in between. The taste of nostalgia.

Food is memories.
- Hassan Kadam in The Hundred-Foot Journey. 

I now realize that food is also luxuries…having people who love you always be there to cook up their signatures and your favourites…having people who even remember your favourites or ask the simple question, “What do you want to eat?” And one must carry the burden of these memories and luxuries for ever after.

A kitchen of your own is a gain in many respects. It is also a loss of these memories and luxuries. No one is going to whip up favourites for you or ask that question again. It’s your turn to remember favourites and cook them up. As for your own, until you can go home and answer the question, “What do you want to eat?”, they must be relegated back to the big jar of memories.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Movie Review - Les Choristes (French, The Chorus), 2004

We all had that one teacher in school – the one who believed in us and the nobility of his or her profession, connected with us, inspired us, practiced tough love and pushed us when we needed it. We all had a teacher who made us who we are.

It’s not a new theme but it remains a powerful one. A reminder of the power of determination, belief and respect. It has been explored in many films including To Sir With Love, Freedom Writers and in Parichay, closer home. But the 2004 French Film Les Choristes (The Chorus) by Christophe Barratier blends modesty and music to deliver the theme in a most heartwarming fashion. 

The film is a flashback on the life of Pierre Morhange, an acclaimed conductor, who comes by the journal of his teacher Mr. Clement Mathieu - the Prefect at the Fond de l’Etang, a school for troubled children. The story is about the transformation of a group of very unruly children through the power of belief and respect, the discovery and development of a musical prodigy and how giving is never a one-way process; the giver always gains too. It is a film that leaves our hearts filled with joy and hope. 

The highlight of this film is the extremely beautiful and uplifting choral music. The divine voices of the children leave us enthralled. It is no surprise that the film was nominated for the Best Achievement in Music written for Motion Pictures at the 77th Annual Academy Awards, as also the Best Foreign Language Film. The casting of the film is noteworthy, as is the cinematography churning out some hauntingly beautiful scenes within the limited scope of the school setting. 

A highly recommended film for those who enjoy getting their hearts warmed by a simple story, well-told.

This review first appeared in the magazine Inbox 1305.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Dark Side Of The Moon: Stories From The Other Half

Chanda ko dhoondhne sabhi
Taare nikal pade...
Galiyon mein woh
Naseeb ke
Maare nikal pade…

(Left at the mercy of fate, all the stars set out in search of the moon...)

My father used to sing that song from the film Jeene Ki Raah sometimes while putting us to bed. It was a sad song for a lullaby, I now realize, but it used to sound beautiful in his tender and hesitant voice. 

This is an attempt at that. Finding. Not the moon but its dark side. The side that no one sees. The stories that no one knows because they are destined to be lost by fate’s design. Sometimes it's patience, sometimes, politeness. The lack of one, another or both. It's perennial eclipse...of the dark side by the bright.

The stories on the bright side are told and retold much like the returning phases of the moon. But stories from the other side remain hidden and are eventually forgotten.

But these are the stories that make two halves into one whole. Without the stories from the dark side, the moon is but a two dimensional disc in the sky. The dark side adds dimension. The stories keep the bright side from devouring the dark. If they are told. 

This is an attempt at telling those stories. At salvaging pasts. Forgotten faces, remembered feelings. An attempt at creating two equal halves in an unequal bargain. An attempt at adding a third dimension to life. 

These are stories from the other half. Better or worse.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Of Old Paint Tubes And New Lives

Have you ever found an old tube of toothpaste or water-colour paint lying around the house, in a forgotten corner? Discovered accidentally in a cleaning spree? And you know how the paint or the paste comes out of that tube when you squeeze to check if it can be used?
Crumbly. Crusty. 

That's what this is. This blog post. The first squeeze from a long-unused tube.
Crumbly and crusty. 
But as is the case with many long-unused tubes, I am hoping this will squeeze out just fine next time.

I recently threw myself way outside of what leadership literature warns us of getting stuck and stagnating in - the comfort zone. I have done it before, in bits and pieces. But this time it went too far, I think.

I quit my job of 7 and 1/2 years without knowing what it was that was next.
I finished the course of studies I was pursuing, something that kept me busy well for 2 and 1/2 years.
I gave away all my books, barely packed any stationery.
I dismantled base in a city I dearly love, vacated what I called home and gave away my set of two wheels, and my independence with it.
My old clothes went too. 
The family I grew up with went back to where we came from.

I gave away or left behind most everything. When I boarded the plane the night I travelled, all I had in my hand were two suitcases filled with new clothes and new shoes and the address of the person whose hand I will hold for life. The only thing familiar to me at that point was the clothes I had on. My excitement in that moment temporarily numbed me to the feeling of being stripped of everything that had defined me until then.

That Augustana song has always fascinated me, Boston.

I think I'll go to Boston...
I think I'll start a new life,
I think I'll start it over, where no one knows my name,
I'll get out of California, I'm tired of the weather,
I think I'll get a lover and fly him out to Spain...
Oh yeah and I think I'll go to Boston,
I think that I'm just tired
I think I need a new town, to leave this all behind...
I think I need a sunrise, I'm tired of the sunset,
I hear it's nice in the Summer, some snow would be nice.

I used to hear that song and wonder in my low moments what it must feel like - to start over in a place where no one knew you and you had no history to define you. It's funny now I'm not far from Boston. It's funny that we dream of living in Spain some day. And the snow is actually nice.

But here I am where no one knows my name. Where I haven't seen a familiar face other than my husband's and best friend's in over a month. I haven't read or written a word. Haven't gone out on my own or explored the town. And although that's the whole purpose of being outside one's comfort zone, it was uncomfortable like I've never known before, this lack of any foundation, footing or familiarity...this floating from one day to another, just passively receiving information and stimuli.

I would have continued my state of float if I hadn't read this:

“People with interesting lives have no vanity. They swap cities. Invest in projects with no guarantees. Are interested in people who are their polar opposites. Resign without having another job in sight. Accept invitations to do things they have never done before. Are prepared to change their favorite color, their favorite dish. They start from zero countless times. They are not frightened about growing old. They climb on stage, shear their hair, do crazy things for love, and buy one way tickets.” – Gio Sguario (Translated from Portuguese)”

In the moment of reading that quote it hit me. The fact that it's not my possessions or what I do that defines me for myself. It's the reason I acquire those possessions or do those things. It's who I am deep inside, it's what makes me put myself in a situation like that in the first place. It's what gives me this optimism and faith to travel halfway across the world and begin building a new life, in partnership this time. It's what allows me to surrender a life and identity I built over 7 years and yet know that I can build it all over again. It's what helps me embrace this daily adventure of marriage and being in a new country without losing my wits. It's the realization that this is what I have always wished for and it has now been granted to me!! I may not be one of the people who would fit the description in that quote but I'd love to try and get there and that's what matters.

If you can make one heap of all your winnings 
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

I love that poem by Kipling, If. I now have the opportunity to live a part of it. I realize many would give a lot to be in my place right now. And if I didn't just say thank you and move on, it would be injustice to a lot if people's dreams, mine included.

So yes, I started out crusty and crumbly when I got old unused paint tubes squeezed for the first time. But the paint tubes, pages and pens have been reclaimed and they will keep the fabric of life colourful and interesting for some time to come. Meanwhile,

I think I'll start a new life,
I think I'll start it over, where no one knows my name.

Boston (Alternate) by Augustana on Grooveshark

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Seven Years In Bangalore

There is no Brad Pitt in this story and there is no Dalai Lama and this not as dramatic as an Austrian climber trying to take on Nanga Parbat. But it’s been very interesting to me personally…my seven years in Bangalore.

Yes, it’s been seven years since that first day of July in 2006 when I landed in this city called Bangalore. It was not my first time; it was the second and more lasting, thanks to that first 4-day visit back in 2003.

We were on an IEEE educational tour from college, back in 2003. I set foot in this city post a 30-hour train journey and loved it instantly. I don’t know what about it attracted me so much particularly back then. Today I know that it must have been the combination of all that defines this city. We visited institutions like IISc, CPRI, ISRO, Talisma by day and explored the city as evening fell. Many firsts marked that trip too…the first time I went bowling, the first time I went go-karting, my first visit to a discotheque. It was a great time, and it showed me the possibilities that life in the city held; I am sure the zeal of youth would had its own role to play in that fascination. But all in all, I decided then that this was the city that I wanted to work in and live in.

 And it was granted (another one of those dreams that came true!). I was one of the only 6 people in our batch of recruitment to get placed in Bangalore. And so began what has been a period of constant discovery, exploration, growth and learning. 

I have come to know Bangalore as a city that fosters experimentation, given the myriad things people do here in terms of their lifestyles as well as the institutions they build. And so I experimented too…with travel, writing, dancing, copywriting, theatre. And I have come to understand myself better, thanks to this experimentation. I am thankful to the city for these opportunities.

Of course the opportunities really come from the people of this place who run phenomenal institutions like Get Off Ur Ass, LRDA, iReboot, Evam (well technically Evam is Chennai but I discovered them in Bangalore), Rangashankara, BRTFF. For me, the best way to describe Bangalore and its people is

Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Arms

I have met some of the most wonderful people in this city, including my husband, and have some very fond memories of them all. They are what makes this place so great and I am glad to have moved here and met them all. It is downright inspirational, the things that some of them do.

If I have taken to travelling, to photography, to writing freelance, to oratory, to theatre, to cycling…it has all been encouraged and inspired by some well-meaning people in a city that is easily the cycling capital, Toastmasters capital (80 clubs), eco-living capital and what not of India. This city makes you grow. It couples possibility and pace in such a beautiful manner. It is a city of communities that foster…everything. Barcamps for startups, running communities, cycling communities, travel communities, riding communities, book clubs, theatre groups, film societies, music groups and live bands…you name it and you can find a community. Groups like Second To None can thrive only in Bangalore. There is a sense of togetherness that leaves no space for snobbery. Unlike societies that revel in exclusivity, I think Bangalore and its people revel in a shared connection.

Which brings me to the mind blowing shared network that Bangalore is. Of course this sense and realization has been heightened after joining Facebook but even earlier, I always found it exciting how every new person I met was somehow connected to other people I had met in the city. This city is like a village where most people know most people. I love that!

Strangely, in a city that is called the IT hub of India and is recognized even in the West for that USP, I find the people connection to be stronger. This is a city that loves having tweet-ups and zomathons…people who interact online for a while feel the need to congregate in person for no good reason… that’s how they become friends and form bonds that last. And that’s why this city is perfect for me…it brings balance to this Libran’s life… between the virtual and the real, between work and play, between dreams and opportunities.

Like I said, not much of a story here…small-town girl visits Bangalore and gets smitten, moves to Bangalore with big-city dreams, meets wonderful people, hears unforgettable stories, visits more places in seven years than in all the 21 years before that, discovers what’s without and discovers what’s within, experiences fun-failing-frustration but becomes the best version of herself that she could be, meets the love of her life, gets married and begins the journey to happily-ever-after.

It sounds pretty everyday when stated like that but only I know how much this city has meant to me every single day and every passing year. I am leaving in 5 month’s time and it is breaking my heart. I can’t imagine it, not being here, in this lovely city. But maybe going away will make us love it even more. And the consolation is that this is where we will return when we do. 

But no matter where I am in the world, I will remain a Bangalorean. This is the city I connect to. I grew up physically elsewhere but this is where I grew up in many other respects. This is where I lived, loved and laughed for seven years. This is the city of my heart…it always has been. And for that reason, I will always love it.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Dreams Come True...Yet Again!

It’s been a month and it still feels like a dream…being married. A dream nurtured all these years, guarded against the voices of those who said it would never come true. It was a dream held close and it has finally come true. It wasn’t easy waiting for this one but I am glad I waited. One sees the pieces fit only in retrospect.

I had always wanted to find my own person, ever since I started thinking about marriage. Someone who would be right for me. Someone I would be right for. Two people who wanted to be together willingly. People called it a pipe dream, too idealistic. They said I was losing time and it was too late to find that person. I will not deny that at some point I started believing them. It was stupid. Knowing how dreams always come true, I should have known better. I should have known that at the right time, that person would walk in to my life the pieces would fit like the jigsaw. No effort, no force, no friction. But I did get scared about chasing an impossible dream. The alternatives scared me too. And so I just waited around for a miracle. A long painful wait.

I had heard friends tell me that when the time is right, it moves so fast it makes your head spin. And that’s exactly what happened. It took one question to set things rolling and start the roller-coaster ride. The last few months have been some of the most exciting in my life, the run up to a traditional Iyengar wedding. And they seem like they went by in a breeze. The initial hesitation around the new family. Getting to know people and making them my own. All the shopping and the time spent over the details. All the discussions, the planning. The fun and the tension. The laughter. It is still ringing in my ears.

The wedding itself seems like a beautiful dream. Meeting my groom after months of virtual presence. The last few days, the anticipation. The house filling up with people and their love. The joy, the happy tears. The small and big rituals, the effort to make it all special for me. It was all over before I had absorbed it enough I think. And I had become a Mrs. already!

It’s been great being married so far. There are a million things about it that are beautiful. Becoming the keeper of a family’s prosperity, the Lakshmi of the house. Learning the layout of a new home, a new kitchen, trying to remember where the sugar and salt are, learning a new way of doing things, new recipes to cook, discovering more about your better half through all the stories told over dinner. It’s also heartwarming to see how the new family adjusts too…the extra chair at the dining table, the cosy squeeze in the car to seat a new family of five, the space created in the wardrobe. It is not easy but it’s beautiful, this process. And you know you are doing ok when you actually feel bad to see your parents-in-law leave back for home while you stay back in Bangalore to continue college…when you start missing them a little bit.

And that’s how yet another beloved dream has come true in my life, leading me to the start of a new dream called ‘The rest of my life’. I already know there will be ups and downs, good days and bad, easy days and tough but I also know that it is going to turn out beautiful when I look back on it many years hence.

Over the years, my pot of gratitude has filled and overflown for the way life has turned out. Sure there were the troughs but they were meant to teach me something, the foremost of which was to believe in my dreams and wait for them to come true. I have been more thankful by the day in the last few months, so much that tears well up in my eyes sometimes just thinking about how perfectly everything has come into place. It’s the start of a lifelong adventure with the culmination of this dream and I am looking forward to every minute of it!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Friday Fiction: The Redemption Of Ahalya

He walked the dark, smelly lane leading to the rundown building in a manner that more than gave away his familiarity with it. He did this every week. But where it should have become habit and taken a place below the stream of conscious thought, he had been thinking about it more and not less. Where it should have become part of routine, it was beginning to stand out in stark contrast to it. Sometimes it was the only reason he lived through the week at all. To walk this walk to the rundown building No. 53 on Bhikaji Cama lane. 

He entered the small landing on the ground floor and started climbing to the fourth floor. A few men sat on the steps outside doing nothing in particular but no one asked him any questions. They knew he would go to room No. 8, just like every week, come out at the end of two hours and walk out just as habitually as he had walked in, into the darkness that swallowed almost all those who visited No. 53 every day. No one dared to stay till dawn. 

Today he didn’t enter room No. 8 without first waiting outside a few seconds, almost hesitant. He looked around and saw some women standing at the doors of their rooms in the dingy corridor. They stared at him nonchalantly. He felt uncomfortable. He had never seen their faces before. Never known their names. Was he even supposed to? Was anyone really? Did it even matter that they had names? Or what those names meant? Who gave them these names? He himself had started by only asking for the room number. And soon they had even stopped asking. He wiped the back of his neck once though he wasn’t sweating, something he unconsciously did when he was nervous. And then he stared inside room No. 8 for a second before stepping in.

“You’ve sprayed perfume today.” She stated more than asked. 
“Well, I…I just felt like it. Do you like it?” He shifted his weight from the left leg to the right.
“That’s nice…you felt like it. It’s just that you’ve never sprayed perfume before. Why you would need to while coming here anyway?” She almost shrugged her shoulders.

Before he could say anything to make her feel nice she had reached the cot and sat down like she did every time, waiting for him to come over. It was hard to tell what she was feeling, if she was feeling anything at all. What did she feel, staying in this place day in and day out and just watching one man being replaced by another, one after the other inside room No. 8? The hangings on the wall never changed. The cot remained the same. Did the sheets change even? He had never bothered noticing the sheets before today, not even the first time. He had been too nervous. Not nervous like today though. 

And she remained the same. Dispassionate, distant. Available but unreachable. She hardly ever said anything but she always listened. He didn’t remember when he had started talking to her though. Maybe one of those bad days at work. Who else could he have talked to, the lonely existence that he led? And then it had become a regular feature of his visits. In fact, sometimes he just talked and did nothing else. 

She didn’t seem to mind. The rates didn’t change anyway. Sometimes she asked questions about what he was saying, as if she were genuinely interested in knowing what lives people outside building No. 53 led. But there was never a hint of longing to go out and experience those lives. Her acceptance seemed complete. Even of things he said. She never seemed to doubt the truth in them. But every time he had tried to ask her any questions about her life, she would only say one thing, “You should drink some water, you have been talking for too long.” And then she would get up and fetch a glass of water, breaking his stream of thought, their stream of one-way conversation, that connection. And then they would go back into bed or he would go back to his house.

Today he remained standing even as she sat on the cot; he stared at her intently. He looked at her face as she looked out the window, and he saw how her jaw line somehow seemed hardened on purpose. As if she were preparing to detach herself from what was to happen next. Shouldn’t it be easy now, for that detachment to come? After so many…but he didn’t know how many…years? Months? He hadn’t been able to find out in the last seven months. Suddenly she looked at him and broke his stream of thought, again, “So are we going to talk today?”

“What do you mean ‘we’ are going to talk? It’s only I who talk, you never do.” He was surprised at his own ability to say something like that but almost relieved at this turn of events. Her excuse for fetching water wouldn’t work now. He had only just arrived.
“It’s best we keep it that way.” She stated calmly and looked at the window again.
“Best for what? Best for whom?”
“For both of us.”
“But I’d like to know you.” He almost implored.
“You do know that people don’t come here to get to know each other.”She didn’t even look at him this time.
“Be that as it may, is it wrong if someone wants to know you?”
“What do you think?” She passed the ball right back.
“If you are going to stay here forever then maybe yes.”
“I do not see a reason why I wouldn’t.”
Whether it was the stream of conversation or a sudden newfound courage, he was only glad for that moment when he said, “You won’t because I’d like to marry you.”

Even before she could react he felt his legs go weak himself and sat down on the floor right where he was standing. He was staring at the ground like he had done something wrong. Even if he had found the courage to say what he had come to say, he did not have the courage to see what effect it had had on her. She would very likely be enraged at this outrageous idea. Did he even know what he was talking about? He did and he wanted her to somehow know that. But the words escaped him. He wanted to say so much to her but where could he begin? In the last seven months, she had come to mean so much to him. She was the only woman he had been with in all this time, ever in fact, and to him it didn’t matter that she had been with other men. He had come to love her in a way he couldn’t even begin to explain. He wanted to give her quiet dignity its rightful place in the world. He didn’t know her story and how she had managed to stay sane after so many…but how many…years? Months? But he wanted to give her a home beyond No. 53 and he wanted to have a home himself. A place where he could come home to her and have the same conversation they had every week but without having to leave at the end of two hours. Yes it did sound a little outrageous, come to think of it. And now that he had used up all his courage to utter the one thing he wanted to, he didn’t have the courage to see rage in those eyes that had never betrayed any emotion all these days. He didn’t want it to be his last memory of them.

But then he heard her sob and looked up at the cot. He couldn’t see her face; she had buried it in her hands but she was sobbing violently, her body shaking now. It was still impossible to tell what she was feeling, even if her cold exterior had broken down. And he continued sitting there and looking at her, too weak with the anticipation of what was to come to be able to get up and comfort her. After what seemed like forever, he managed to stand up and she looked at him. Her eyes still seemed blank and so did his, maybe the confusion had wiped away any traces of what they really felt about it all. It was a good blank slate to start a new beginning with. 

He walked up to her and helped her stand up, clumsily wiping her face. She then bent down to touch his feet, no more a commodity but a woman who was loved by a man. For all those years…but how many…she had forgotten…of burying the part of her that was human and being treated like an object that belonged in someone’s fantasy, one sentence had changed her life and brought meaning to all that transpired in the last seven months between her and him. It was like waking from deep slumber, a bad dream, and remembering what it felt like to really feel an emotion, one that washed one’s existence pure of everything else that had ever happened…love. It would be a difficult journey to begin but that one sentence was enough to help her fight on. 

He did not know what would happen next and how she could even be released from No. 53. There were many questions hanging in the air and he didn’t know where to begin but he thought a good place to start would be by embracing her – his love, his life – and asking the first: “What is your name?”