Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Rolling Stone’s Moss: The Chronicles Of Anicka – Memoirs Of A Chocolate Daughter

The dictionary mandates that I go on in order when I say ‘Chronicle’ but then I have to live up to my image of a rebel sometimes. So The Chronicles will be presented in no particular order. Having established that, it is befitting that the first story be dedicated to my European mother.

ZB was the project manager on the first of the projects in a set of 4 or 5 that were going to be executed. And from the little that I knew of her through phone calls and e-mails, I imagined her to be a hard taskmaster…someone who barely smiles and is driven beyond belief. The image of the ice queen may just have flashed across my mind once or twice.


All that changed the moment we landed in Bratislava. We had no clue what ZB looked like and had to rely on her identifying us. Not too difficult considering the fact that we were two of the only three brown skinned passengers were on the flight from Munich to Bratislava.

ZB easily marked out the only Indian woman on that flight and we received a warm welcome in Bratislava. The weather’s welcome wasn’t that kind with the tropical visitors landing into a temperature of four degrees below zero. But then we had been warned.

She assumed the role of caretaker from that moment. She had already bought us some fruits, chocolates and water (rare and a commodity, notice how I don’t put the two words together) to keep in our hotel rooms. She asked us if we would want to go out for dinner and look around if we were not too tired, she could drive us. We were only gladdened by the thought and ZB offered to wait for as long as it took us to settle down in our rooms and get ready to step out.

ZB then took us to the Christmas market in the central square. She also took us to the Slovak Pub on Market Street and our first ever meal in Slovakia ended up being their national dish – Halusky (pronounced Ha-loo-sh-ki). All this in our first four hours in Slovakia!

And all this while, as also over the next two months, she sought to understand Indian culture from us. Later on during our stay, ZB would have long lunch conversation with me and another Indian colleague, who had joined us in January and was married too, about Indian culture, parenting, arranged marriages. Sometimes ZB and I would chat after I would login from home and she would ask me questions about my marriage plans, religion etc and for once I could talk about all that without the fear of being misjudged. I would confide my deepest fears in her and she would give me advice from her experience.

ZB pretty much accompanied us on every office lunch. This became a sort of joke around the office, every time the five of us would start readying ourselves for lunch. We were among the youngest people in the office – all four of us under 25 – and ZB was over 45. They used to call us her kindergarten and would tell her to make us all ties our scarves together and keep our fingers on our lips while walking.

I have never seen anyone with such an objective approach to work as ZB. If she knew there was no work for any of us and we would be languishing our time in office, she would march us all out and drive us to a castle or somewhere like that. She would tell us stories of her country, her childhood in communist Slovakia and her family. We would sing Indian songs for her – film songs, ghazals, Kannada songs – and she would listen intently though she never understood what any of it meant. In fact we have sung ‘Panchchi Nadiya Pawan ke Jhonke’ (a song we chose for its reference to borders and how some things transcend them) almost 4 or 5 times on various occasions. And we gladly obliged. It was only our pleasure to sing for her.

It is because of ZB that I even have friends outside of my work in Slovakia. She introduced us to her wonderful sons and I have the privilege of calling them as my friends now (in fact you’ll hear a story on JB, the elder, soon). She also made it a point to introduce us to people at the Slovakia office who were outside of our line of work. And it was one of those people, my friend Rado, who christened me as Anicka (pronounced Ani-ch-ka). He thought Indians had complicated names (Anupama included). And so I became Anicka in Slovakia from that day on.

I have so many fond memories of ZB that this space will not do justice to it – memories of 6 AM messages she sent to me just so I could witness real snow in Bratislava on my windowsill, of how she wanted me to see the place they lived in for 15 years – where real snow fell, not dirty city snow – and was only too thankful that JB drove us there, of her telling me about Bratislava in summer and how she wanted me to visit in summer, of going over to her place to cook some Indian food for the family and then talking till 2 AM over cups of tea just like at home (in fact their tea was ordered straight from Darjeeling), of her hunting a cone of Henna down in far away Bratislava (it bore a Rajasthan address) because she wanted it applied and we were too happy to tattoo her palms with it (her skin, sadly, didn’t take the colour)…every day was a new page in the memory book when she was around.

A few days before we left, ZB took me and my other lady colleague shopping in Parndorf, Austria. I was way too excited about being able to pick up Tommy merchandise and we generally had a gala time in the discount sale town. Before leaving the place, ZB suggested we have some coffee and we walked to the coffee shop. And while we waited for the order, ZB pulled out a paper bag with a Tommy T-shirt inside and said, “This is for my chocolate daughter.” I can only remember but not express how touched I was at the gesture. In one moment it had all figured itself out. We really must have been family in another life.

The day I was to leave Slovakia for the year, JB the elder one, took me out for a farewell party. Earlier in the afternoon, I had made some Payasam for everyone in the office and burnt an assortment of Indian songs on a CD complete with an explanation document for some of the colleagues there. I had also attached small post-it notes to each CD with a personal message.

I had told ZB in her message that very few people in the world had the privilege of having two mothers and I was one of them…that I was going to miss her dearly and was thankful to her for everything. I really was going to miss her.

It wasn’t until that night when JB and I were walking to a music club that I realized what it had meant to her and to both of us. She told me she was glad she hadn’t read the message in office because she had cried all the way to home. She told me I should know I have family in Slovakia and I should visit whenever I wanted and I would be welcome home.

And that was the biggest present she ever gave me…family in an alien land. For not once in almost 3 months did I feel lost or lonely, not once. And I have no one but her to thank for that.

It is no surprise I cried too, on my way out of the country. Somewhere it hurt to leave and I will not hide the fact that sometimes I miss the place and people like one would miss home. I really do.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Rolling Stone's Moss: The Chronicles Of Anicka

“I’m sorry where?”
“Oh yeah…in Europe no? Is that near France or Germany?”
“Not quite, there’s the Czech Republic between Germany and Slovakia. You know, Czechoslovakia?”
“Oh yeah yeah, I know I know Czechoslovakia. Nice nice.”

I was one step short of pulling out the map and pointing to people where I was travelling to for my first ever overseas work assignment. But yeah, they knew Czechoslovakia. I’m sure they had figured. But if they had, it didn’t show on their face.


That was October 2008. We were running around to get our documents in place for the Visa. I was quite excited about my first trip abroad being to Europe, like I had always wanted it to be (figures why the Venezuela or the Texas thing never worked out!). It was one of those places people love to call the ‘cold countries’. There would be the winter clothing to buy. There would be snow to look forward to. There would be an alien culture and language. Yes yes, work too among other things.

The excitement was giving me goosebumps except no one seemed to have a clear idea where this country really was. And I’m glad the ones who did know about it did not mention it to me before I reached, their reference points being movies like Hostel and Eurotrip. Of course there was a moderate cautionary warning from the Global Travel Team, totally unnecessary now that I think about it. At the time however, it only added to the adventure.

That was my first trip abroad. It had all the makings of an experience to be remembered for a lifetime including angels and miracles. I have still not gotten over how wonderful it  all really was and I miss the people dearly…my people. I have been especially remembering it for the past few days; I had just returned from there this time of the year last year. So nostalgia is in the air and it will show.

Starting today, a sub-series of The Rolling Stone’s Moss that tells you all about that journey over the next few weeks – The Chronicles Of Anicka. Who’s Anicka? You’ll discover : )

Set The Fire To The Third Bar

I was to blog about something else today but I just have to get this overpowering feeling out of my head. It’s been a while a song made me feel like this. It’s been a while a song made me see all this.

Eveline gave us this song yesterday. Snow Patrol. Quite nice to listen to at first go. And the precise reason you would hear it a second time. And a third. Until it was the only thing playing on the playlist (I’m hearing it as I write). It’s one of those songs that you loop over and over. But not in the same way. Not quite in the same way.

This was quicksand. You got pulled in deeper every time you heard the song. And soon you couldn’t resist playing it ‘just-one-more-time’. It looked harmless until it had wrestled you to the ground…ironically, you enjoyed the feeling.

And then after hearing it some fifty odd times it had settled in well enough to start prodding your insides. And it found the weak spots. And then a vortex rose from those points. And soon the feeling overcame you. And you didn’t even know what had hit you.

So here I am sitting in office fighting back tears trying to figure out what is wrong. I even made a few phone calls to try and see if the anxious butterflies flew away.
The truth is, this song makes you miss. Something. Someone. It makes you want to break into a mad dash in the middle of a busy street looking for the one thing you hadn’t found or had lost…the one thing you needed to make everything else right. It makes you feel lost.

I find the map and draw a straight line
Over rivers, farms, and state lines
The distance from 'A' to where you'd be
It's only finger-lengths that I see
I touch the place where I'd find your face
My finger in creases of distant dark places

I can almost see them trace their fingers on that piece of paper. Two lonely souls in two distant homes…how one would give anything to make the distances to disappear!

Their words mostly noises
Ghosts with just voices
Your words in my memory
Are like music to me

Sooner or later that’s how it ends up. You are surrounded by people whose words make no sense to you and you spend every minute wishing you were somewhere else, with someone else. Having a nonsensical conversation that only the two of you understood. But the finger lengths of distance always come in between. And then you find yourselves, the two of you, looking over the cliffs into the distances, or standing alone in the rain, or caught in the storm with the vast envelope of loneliness for company.

I'm miles from where you are,
I lay down on the cold ground
I, I pray that something picks me up
And sets me down in your warm arms

If only.

This is the power of music. It makes you feel. Music is not just entertainment. Somewhere and in some way, every song is who you are. You are capable of feeling everything that any melody ever-made made its creator feel. And this is why I love music so much. It is who I am. And I love it when a song does this to me. Shows me visuals I don’t want to see or have buried deep within. It forces me to experience the reality that the artist went through and somewhere I live a new life in every song. And if there is no one to talk to about how you are feeling, music is the best place to go to…it will always have a song that will understand how you feel.

It breaks my heart that this song is so good. It really does. Listen to it but not just only once…let it grow on you and let it take you places. Let it even break your heart if it comes to that. Trust me, in dark way, you will enjoy the hold this song has on you.

This one is for Eveline…thank you for the music sweetie

Monday, February 08, 2010

60 Years Of The Indian Republic And A Debate

This is late by 10 odd days but on the occasion of having completed 60 years as a Republic, I take this opportunity to present to you the content of my speech from a debate that I had participated in when I was in standard tenth. India had just completed 50 years as a Republic and a debate had been organized as part of the celebrations. It is nice to go back to this and see how relevant it is today.

Disclaimer: I was just 15 years old and writing the text of a 10-minute debate speech for the first time. My language as well as world-view are likely to be very very naive here. I have grown up since.

Motion of the House: The Constitution of India, during the last 50 years, has served the people well.

Stand: In favour of the motion

Show me one country where one can build a temple, a church, a mosque and a gurudwara in the same neighbourhood! Show me one country where where every other person follows a different religion, culture and traditions! Show me one country where an individual is free to do things of his own without having to answer anyone till in his own limits! Search all round the world and your search will not end till you come back to India. This objective of free, fearless and frank minds has been realized by our constitution. It is the fundamental duty of every every citizen to abide by and respect the constitution. And this everyone must do in his best capacity.

Our constitution had to be framed keepingin mind the fact that India houses people coming from all walks of life, all various religions, diversified cultures and a broad spectrum of customs and traditions. The reality that today our constitution satisfies all of its citizens is, in my opinion, its greatest achievement.

Our constitution describes our democratic republic as a secular state. And is not our list of festivals an evidence? Right from Id in January to Christmas in December we walk through all the festivals of all the religions. And this nationwide celebration promotes fraternity - another provision of our constitution. Both those values account for peaceful co-existence. So hospitable are we in this respect that we've had priests from Japan coming and constructing temples in our ambiance and a religious Buddhist leader coming all the way from China to seek religious asylum.

The constitution provides for social, political and economic justice for all.

We have been assured liberty by our constitution. We also have the six freedoms - 
i) Article 19 of the Human Rights Charter and our Article 19 provide freedom of speech and expression.
ii), iii) Article 20 of the Human Rights Charter and our Article 19B provide freedom of peaceful assembly and association. These are important in the sense that they have given equal opportunity to everyone to unite eg. employees and employers; they are free to form unions, join unions, work together and fight for justice.
iv), v) Article 13 of the Human Rights Charter and our Article 19 give freedom of movement and residence. Our Institute of Chemical Engineering and Technology has been surveyed to be the best in the world. The same goes for the IITs. Yet, our younger generation migrates for education and employment. This proves that our constituion provides for freedom of movement not only in the country but also outside at the cost of progress, development and as per the preference of the citizens.
vi) We also have the freedom of profession, occupation, trade or business.
The above discussion shows that most of the provisions of the Human Rights Charter of the UN also find a place in our constitution.

Now, for equality. Section 1.4 of our constitution says 'The State shall not deny to any person equality before law or equal protection of laws within the territotry of India'. Section 1.6 subclass 2 says 'No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth, residence or any of them be eligible to be discriminated against in respect of any employment or office under the state'. Article 1 of the HUman Rights Charter and our Article 14 say 'All men are born equal'. Had it not been for equality, how could a poor farmer's boy from a Dalit family rise to become the President of India? When the co-called developed nations were still fighting for voting rights of the fairer sex, we opted to place a woman in the highest political post. Today, those very developed nations have voted her as the woman of the millennium through BBC - Mrs. Gandhi. Our constitution gace women enough place to leap into space. Our constitution by removing gender discrimination has risen above religious discrimination. In the pre-constitutional days, right to father's property was nejoyed by the sons. But today, equal right to property has given better financial security to women thus improving their life status.

We've been gifted with fundamental rights by our constitution. We have the right to equality which I've already briefed upon. The right to freedom elaborates the six freedoms. Right against exploitation includes ban on slavery by Human Rights Charter Article 4 and our Article 23; ban on torture, cruelty, inhuman or degrading treatment by Article 5 and 21 respectively; ban on human trafficking and forced labour. Article 14 and 25 respectively grant the right to religion, Article 27 and 51A(F) give cultural and educational rights. MOreover Article 3 and 21 assert the right to life. We also have the right to protect these rights legally! A special Article 13 on child's rights says 'A child shall have the right to freedom and expression; this includes the freedom to seek, receive, impart information and ideas of all kinds regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, or in print, in form of art or through any other media of the child's choice' Aren't we childrem speaking our minds out a fine example of this?

The constitution deirects the State through directive principles of the State Policy. Section 3, Part iv, Article 41 says 'The State shall within the limits of its economic capacity and development make effective provision for securing the right to work, education, public assistance in case of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement and in other cases of undesired want'. This is in co-ordination with the right to organize. There are many more guidelines available.

When most other countries thought newspapers to be the mouthpieces of Governments, we opted for a free press where the government can be criticezed, corrected, adviced and transparency maintained. The same goes for a free judiciary.

The constitution has benefited a few individual fields too. In the pre-constitutional era, publicing one's scientific work required dependence on others. Today we are self-reliant and have achieved a prominent place in scienc and technology. We have our own experts right from computers to nuclear science, thanks to the constitutional provisions to encourage scientific temper and research. Section 48 on Agriculture and Animal HUsbandry says 'The State shall endeavour in to organize agricluture and agriculture on modern and scientific lines and shall in particular take steps prohibiting slaughter of cows and other milch and draught cattle' Moreover, our first five year plan was focussed on agriculture.

It happens often that we have all the ingredients to cook good food. But an inexperienced chef spoils it all. Similarly, our constitution has provided all opportunities for every possible development. But sometimes due to the selfish nature of the implementing authorities the fruits do not reach the common man. For executional flaws we cannot blame the world's longest written constitution. Our constitution has been cooked in such a way that all flavours are of the people, by the people and for the people. In an ideal situation, we would have progressed 5 times as mush as we have. But vested interests have acted as speed breakers.

My fellow speakers may go on to say that any Tom, Dick or Harry can hold political office irrespective of educational status. But wisdom and literacy are two different things. A wise but illiterate person may govern the country better than an unwise and literate one, which is why our constitution allows it.

Ultimately our constitution, which was formed dispassionately with all the Human Rights, minorities, interests etc. in view, wanted to establish the importance of a single citizen as a person and it has achieved its purpose. In my opinion, it has beyond doubt proven to be an instrument of social change in 50 years. I had begun with a fundamental duty and shall end with one too: it is our duty to strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement.

I Read, Therefore I Am

So Priya asked me if I would write a guest-post for her. I was more than happy to oblige. I thought I'd write about travel but she'd rather that I tell her how I had evolved as a reader over the years. That's something I had never thought about and I am glad she brought it up. So here goes, my blog post on Uniquely Priya:

Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it...