Sunday, December 28, 2008

By the River

Moral 1: Never forget to charge the battery of your camera before you go traipsing through the city.

Moral 2: Things might not always be what they promise to be, so be prepared for disappointments (but don't give them more importance than they deserve, for they'll most likely be followed by something spectacular as an alleviation).

Moral 3: Even if you binge at a restaurant at midnight, you are bound to get hungry (or have an appetite- however you choose to look at it) early in the morning, before you go to bed.

Moral 4, and the most important one: Never ever go out with a slightly sprained neck to admire a beautiful place, especially one where the structures rise straight into the sky without inhibition or hesitance.

Whew! Moralising done, Miss Preachy Goody-Goody can now revert to her true evil self and get down to the actual business of story-telling.

It started out as any other day. I woke up at my normal time (which would probably be called tea-time in more respectable parts of the world), lamented that another Saturday was going to go waste without a chance to understand better the culture of the city I'm living in, when my roommate suggested we go to the museum. We did set out with that intention, but not at the right time. When you leave home at 8 in the evening, no curator would really be willing to entertain you, so we decided to go to the Esplanade- no difficulty making decisions here- and headed for the sparkling domes that house theatres, a mall (naturally) and a library. An open-air concert was on, people were lounging around, talking, taking pictures, laughing, celebrating birthdays, waiting for a concert to begin, or simply walking around aimlessly, and you would know by now which category we belonged to.

We stopped at a cafe with a German-sounding name for some ice cream. After a sporting struggle with the near-frozen ice cream, the friendly (seemingly Indian) man at the counter gave us our generous scoops of rum-raisin and strawberry ice-cream in crisp cones. The rum-raisin was near-heaven. Absolutely delectable.

We peeped into a toy-shop, not realising that it was for expectant mothers, making a somewhat sheepish exit when the salesgirl asked us in rather unintelligible English if we'd come in to do some shopping for a baby or were expecting one or something to that effect. We wandered into a gift shop, looked through the windows of a darkened store that sold musical instruments- violins in finished and half-finished states, guitars, and other silhouettes catching some light from the brightly-lit passages of the Esplanade. It reminded me of the Old Curiosity Shop (please do not embarrass me by asking me about my progress with the book- that is a taboo topic for the moment).

Our next stop was Marina Bay. We walked half a circle to the spot where the emblem of Singapore, the lion with a mouth that spouts water endlessly, stands looking dispassionately at the massive lighted buildings all around, at the slowly rotating, colourfully blinking Singapore Flyer, undaunted by the numerous tourists making a celebrity out of it and taking pictures enthusiastically. The lights shone down on the thick, black ripples, casting a haze all around. Surprising, isn't it then, that we were actually able to see the stars in the sky? A slight, imperceptible breeze blew the spray in our direction, lion's saliva on my glasses and my arm. The Fullerton Hotel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fullerton_Hotel) loomed majestically in the background, a lovely structure boasting a colonial past and great wealth, bedecked for Christmas and the New Year.

The area around is strewn with such marvels of British architecture- the Cavenagh Bridge, for instance- a brilliantly lit structure, built sometime in 1869, arching over the sparkling waters of the Singapore River. It is named after a Governor of the Straits, and conjured up some fascinating images in my head. Take away the tourists and tourists, strip the bridge of its lights, and you can hear the clash of metal, armies on either side preparing for war, a battle between the Covenanters and the Episcopalians, straight out of Old Mortality. (I know I went overboard with my imagining there, but I just couldn't help it.) The notice at the entrance to the bridge prohibiting cavalry had me confused, until I searched it out (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cavenagh_Bridge). We walked up the bridge to the opposite side, round to where diners sat at candle-lit tables outside the Museum of Asian Culture. Unfortunately for us, the museum was already closed, and we weren't exactly the tux-black dress type, dressed in jeans as we were, to even pretend to be invitees at whatever distinguished, classy gathering that was.

Nothing quite beats the pleasure of walking in an unknown city. Though the tall, umpteen-storeyed towers with the names of well-known international banks (learnt through distant advertisements, as sponsors of F1 teams or names in the financial sections of the newspaper) have now become familiar, there is still enough scope for discovery and wandering. I can do so in this city without getting lost- for how can I get lost in a city I barely know?

The water reflected the slew of colours thrown by the lights from buildings near and far; every conceivable colour, a rainbow of sorts trembling restlessly even in the still air, a boat quietly slicing through its deep restfulness. For once, I didn't complain about light pollution or man's wickedness in destroying nature and rip it of its beauty to prove his own illegitimate, borrowed supremacy. The architecture in Singapore is indeed marvellous. How concrete can mould and twist itself into such ambitious, domineering or graceful structures is inconceivable to my awed senses. It is a treat in every way, though, walking through unknown streets, not knowing what you are to be surprised by at the next bend in the road. Nights here are vibrant and exciting. You don't have to be a regular club-hopper or party-goer to appreciate the splendour and the thrill of being out in the city at night. (If, of all people, I am talking about going out at night, it has to be true.)

Need I say it another time? Well, I will. I love this city.

PS: The few pictures that I did manage to take before my camera's battery played foul are at http://flickr.com/photos/wanderingbrook.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Festive Season? Oh No!

In my diary, it is official. The festive season is absolutely the worst time of the year. Pardon me if I sound insensitive and crass, but I see no point in watching people have fun and make merry when I am closeted in office with absolutely nothing to do. I may not be the 'have fun and make merry' type, either, but it still doesn't feel good. I like visual and aural treats. I like to hear the carols and have my eyes blinded by blue and silver and golden lights. This is the time you can observe and absorb, capture pictures in memory to be translated to words at the earliest opportunity.

And what did I end up doing, this Christmas day? This. I watched my three monitors for a while, expecting some action. Nothing. So I walked to the window, where a colourless sky cast its colourless reflection on pale green ocean ripples. The ships were not in the harbour, probably cruising around some unknown island laden with people giddy with happiness and alcohol. I went to the pantry. I made six phone calls and three people answered. (Not a bad ratio, going by my normal standards.) I bothered my flatmate working at another desk on a different application. Then I went back to monitor a job and send out a report- the only genuine bit of work. No point doing this, either, because the users the report goes out to everyday were probably, at that very moment, divesting a once-respectable turkey of all its dignity and its flesh and consigning the bones to a heap of waste, the report the thing farthest from their minds. Who says slavery has been abolished by law? It flourishes and thrives and grows in leaps and bounds. Don't even think of looking further for proof.

I went through some documents related to our applications, found nothing wholly relevant or interesting enough (maybe I didn't search wholeheartedly enough- need we talk about that?); read the online version of the Hindu, wondered why Sania had been invited to participate in the Australian Open (no more Injury Fables- what has the world come to?); read some Maugham; went out with my flatmate when she left a good two and a half hours before I did and lost myself within the hallowed walls of one of the chocolate shops at Vivo City; read some more Maugham; indulged in some of the most useless, fruitless conversation with my colleagues; waited, watched the clock, waited some more; read about advertising and auras; heaved a huge sigh of relief when the people from the next shift came in.

You should see me on an ordinary day at work. Tearing my hair out, not knowing which monitor to look at, not knowing whether I'm typing on the right screen. And today, calm and placid like the waters of the Orinoco. (Is the Orinoco placid? I don't know; for my sake, please imagine it is, because that is the only synonym that comes to me easily at this moment.)

I came home in a white Mercedes-Benz, the high point of my day. At 90 kmph on silken highways, a fantastic cityscape of towering buildings brilliant with lights, then cosy, dream-like homes, and a simple avenue flanked by trees and swaying ghostly shrubs, the rain just beginning to fall softly- one of the loveliest drives I can possibly imagine. Sometimes, despite being an advocate of nature, I cannot help but succumb to the dazzle and the glamour of the superficiality of the city. Tempting, forbidden, immensely tantalising.

I love being here. Now. Festive season and all. Even if I am closeted in office.

Or wait. Ask me tomorrow. Boxing Day, London users. Not a very promising combination if I'm looking for some work to do.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Day That Wouldn't Come

With just two days to go for the staging of the play, the excitement in the air was palpable. The children could hardly eat or sleep without dreaming of their costumes and their dialogues. The mellow music of the violin floated forever in their ears, the march Mrs. Braganza played on her piano was in their heads and made their feet dance in rhythm to it. Oh, what fun! It was such a pity Christmas came just once a year.

Mrs. Braganza had indeed had a brilliant idea, replacing the regular Nativity play that the children were quite bored with, with a little fairy story, a mix gleaned from Rapunzel, Cinderella and Snow White, that she herself had scripted. English names became Spanish and Portuguese; blond Margarets and Edwards became brunette Juanitas and Pedros. The village was small, the children grew up and grew bored rapidly. The stagnant little pool of people that still remained had witnessed the Nativity play numerous times over the years with the same actors. The Magi had outgrown their robes and the crowns had lost their sheen, though the timeless story still throbbed and thrived in the collective soul of the tiny, aged Goan village. Some things never could change.

“Ma, I’m going down to the theatre,” Leena called out to her mother, shutting the rickety wooden door of the one-roomed house behind her, bunches of her clean, patched, oversized skirt scrunched up in her fist to keep the hem from the slush of the previous night’s rain. The clouds had dived back into the sea now, grey mantle and all, disappearing in the sparkling, foamy blue-and-white swirls. The sky was just as blue, washed clean and bright, flecked with puffy white clouds.

“As white as Miss Naomi’s frock,” thought Leena, picking her way through the jagged rocks of the cliff that her house perched on, with a confidence born of the recklessness of girlhood. There was an additional spring in her step because she was going to the ‘theatre’ and would get to look at the lovely dresses and hold the pretty little tiara that Naomi would wear as Princess Juanita. It didn’t matter that she had only been picked to play the lady’s maid, and that because all the other little girls had refused to play the demeaning part. Nobody would be Juanita’s maid; how could they? Proud mothers taught their darling daughters to say no. Jealousy stained the pure innocence of childhood, leading to unforeseen consequences. Leena, for the first time in her life, was allowed to participate in the children’s activities. That she went to school with them was of no consequence, she sat in her own corner and ate her own coarse food. Who would mingle with the daughter of a domestic help?

Leena, in typical eleven-year-old innocence, knew nothing of the trappings of wealth and status. She was just overjoyed at the idea of being allowed to play with the others, and didn’t know that her mother’s heart bled at this base act of discrimination and injustice. The other children were the trained slaves of bourgeois discipline, taught to do what their parents told them to and not to commit the grave crime of thinking on their own. Dutifully, they learnt their lessons and repeated them, not daring or willing to go beyond the set boundaries. It was just too much trouble.

Skipping over stones, sending pebbles rolling under her callused, thin-slippered feet, Leena reached the ‘theatre’- a pompous word for a room with a makeshift stage behind the lone church of the village, freshly whitewashed for Christmas, smelling of newness, cookies and cakes. She was very early, as usual. She never could keep her excitement at bay. She peeped into the room warily, and finding no one there, hopped in with gay abandon, her hair swinging on her back in two oiled braids entwined with faded red ribbon. It was quite a marvel how, at the end of the day, Leena’s mother managed to extricate cloth from hair.

The costumes were stacked in a pile on an old sofa in the corner. Naomi’s white gown lay on top, a plain dress made over with all the frills and lace that could be procured at the local bangle shop, and for that very reason of abundance, attractive to a deprived child’s greedy eye. Leena was to have a costume, of course; the wise mothers had decided on a cast-off frock of one of the princess’s friends, for she was, after all, just a lady’s maid, impoverished and plain. Leena had looked on with justifiable envy as the frocks were brought in the previous day, and the girls rehearsed with them on for the first time. How pretty they looked, a sun-browned princess with curly black hair and her sun-browned friends, glistening eyes and rosy mouths over pink and white and yellow frills. And a little maid in a pale green dress, watching quietly from the sidelines, speaking when spoken to, acting obediently, a trained slave of the trained slaves of the bourgeois.

“How I wish I could have a dress like Miss Naomi’s,” said Leena to her mother that night, eyes shining in excitement. Her mother smiled. “You will, some day.” Some day, when she had enough money to afford a new dress; or some day, when Leena found an unemployed man with coarse lips to kiss her hair when he was impassioned and beat her when he was drunk (for that was what often fell to their lot and she couldn‘t imagine anything better than that happening), she could perhaps have a decent dress for her wedding. ‘Some day’ was the answer to most of Leena’s answerable questions and requests- when an already ragged cloth doll torn apart by a pariah dog could be replaced, when a scraped knee exposing a hideous-looking clot of blood would see new skin grow over and scar it closed, when they could visit the fancy restaurant where the lights dazzled and the Christmas tree came into life with trimmings and baubles in December. When that day would come, neither mother nor daughter knew; one viewed the possibility of its arrival with too little optimism, the other with too much. The line between childhood and adulthood.

Leena looked longingly at the white frock. What wouldn’t she give (if she had anything) to be able to wear it once, just once. She stroked the smooth satin bodice with her work-hardened hands, taking care to wipe them against her own blouse first. What a pretty dress it was! Such frills! Longing metamorphosed into intense desire, whittling away rapidly the fear that encased the tiny heart now swollen with greed. A new daring replaced her timidity, and before she knew it, she was pulling the frock on over her head, disappearing in its puffy layers, a model of incongruity in the still, sunbeam-broken air of the empty room. A faint glimmer among swathes of red velvet revealed the tiara, and with less hesitation than before, Leena picked it up and set it on her head.

Trembling with a strange mixture of thrill and trepidation, Leena climbed onto the stage. At this moment, she wasn’t Leena. She was Juanita. She was young, but the raw passion that sows its seeds in human hearts and leaves them dormant, to ripen at their own time, took root now; she was an actress, no, she was Juanita, the fictional princess, now real. She awaited Pedro. She was eleven, she scarcely knew what the love she was enacting was, yet she felt it. She pleaded, she cried, she smiled, she enacted the role perfectly. Juanita. The Princess. She was a reality.

Swirling around at the end of her little play, the skirt revolving in innumerable swirls around her thin legs, she curtsied prettily, facing an invisible audience, a satisfied smile dimpling her face. Her smiling eyes bashfully looked up from the rough wooden floor to the vacant chairs, exuding confidence at the idea of facing the grim, unseeing walls- and oh, horror of horrors, the chairs weren’t unoccupied any longer. Feet had come pattering in inaudibly, bodies had floated in noiselessly, and faces stared back at her now, curiosity and wonder stamped on them.

The chilly warmth of a tense coastal winter afternoon penetrated the silent air. The world came to a standstill, as if awaiting one moment of truth that would change things forever. And then- a sharp wave of applause broke through. One pair, then two, then several pairs of hands came together in loud applause that echoed off the whitewashed walls. Leena looked around in fright and bewilderment, and then sudden joy. Surprise, surprise! They were clapping for her. They were applauding her performance. She was the star they were cheering. Oh, how good it felt!

What took time to filter into Leena’s ears and make itself audible was the jeering. The scornful laughter that accompanied the applause. The sarcasm in the applause. The taunts and the jibes, the comments at the audacity of a maid’s daughter to think she could ever be a princess. Naomi’s eyes were red with wrath when they met Leena’s, and the poor little girl slid off the stage in fright. Hardly conscious of what she was doing, she squeezed into an alcove and dragged the frock over her head in a hurry, the frills swirling absurdly, shreds of lace entangling themselves in her hair and making her look like an absurd scared fairy. The once-beloved dress was discarded with shame, and Leena ran past the angry crowd of well-off, angry mothers and children, her deflated heart swelling again, this time with the hurt seeping in.

Leena ran like the wind. Her slippers tore, her skirt was splattered all over with mud, but she didn’t care. Sobs rose in her chest and her breath came out raspingly, painfully, tearing through her mouth in great gasps. Her childhood was swallowed up in those few unbearably real moments of discernment. Her position became startlingly clear to her, enlightenment washed in like a huge, engulfing wave.

She let herself into the house. Her mother wasn’t home, not that it would make a difference. Because, this time, the question wasn’t answerable. It didn’t have to be answered. It didn‘t have to be asked. For there wouldn’t be a day when she really could be a princess. “Some day?” a tiny voice whispered hopefully. This time, the question wasn’t answered. Along with all the other answerable questions, it was buried irretrievably in the past, never to be sought out again. Some things never would change.

Some Real Bitter Chocolate

By the time I am done with my stint in Singapore, I am sure to have become a real connoiseur of dark chocolate. Who knows, when I return to India, I might be a chocolatier- Jaya and Her Chocolate Factory. There is chocolate from all over the world, particularly dark chocolate- with rum, nuts, almonds, raisins, or just classic pure bitter chocolate- in large stores dedicated only to chocolate. There is so much to choose from, it is absolutely bewildering. Rich dark chocolate from Belgium and Germany, as bitter as it can get, is an absolutely heavenly treat; as usual, most of my flatmates cannot understand my 'weird' tastes. Do tell me, though, what sane person can say no to dark chocolate?!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Surrealism

The wind chimes clinked as a tall, brown-haired young man walked in, backpack slung carelessly across his left shoulder. The chimes tinkled and jangled every time the door was opened and shut. The shop was warm, charming and tastefully arranged. And why not, when old Mrs. Lim, a rich Chinese lady who had taken an Indian husband against much opposition, had so much money to spend on delightful things, on things other than ‘necessities’. ‘It wouldn’t be too bad to be rich, would it now,’ Aarti thought, when her tendencies towards a life of simplicity and renunciation took a more worldly turn, as often happened the moment she stepped into this wonderful, curious shop to take her turn at the cash counter. Surrealism. The name suited the shop beautifully. In fact, it seemed quite like sacrilege to call it a shop at all. It had spirit, it embodied many unidentifiable, inseparable emotions and ideas, it warmed and comforted broken hearts; it was a shop only in the sense that it drew metal and paper out of unwary, bulging pockets.

Tucked away in a remote corner of the city, Surrealism never did draw enough attention. It wasn’t meant to be a commercial venture, it was just a means for Mrs. Lim to flaunt her Oriental riches, to attempt intelligent conversations in broken German, French and Italian, and fluent Chinese, with the tourists who trickled in, and to provide a decent income to the three young women who worked for her. Aarti was one of them.

Aarti worked part-time at Surrealism. She came in as soon as her classes ended for the day, a slim, weary-eyed twenty-year-old making her way through the narrow streets from college to this enchanting land of dreams and antiquity. The lecherous glances of some men (she wasn’t pretty; but what girl has to be, to draw lewd glances from those corrupt eyes), the bothersome roommates whose ideas were always poles apart from hers, the sorrows of the heart, big and small, all packed themselves into one huge case which stowed itself away into some distant recess of her mind the moment she entered the shop, to be retrieved only when she came out of her stupor. Each new day, every time she came in, she felt like a first-timer here. No matter how familiar the red and gold decor, the positioning of the furniture, the stacks of beads and rosaries and the statues of the Buddha, there was always something new to be discovered, something wondrous and magical. She couldn’t quite put her finger on this one thing, and had several times decided to stop trying, only to unbend her resolution and go back to attempting to discover just what it was about Surrealism that mystified her so.

The week-long Christmas vacation had finally come around, and Aarti was glad of the chance to put in longer hours at the shop to cover for Natalie (who would on no account be denied her Christmas break, come rain or shine, poverty, even absolute penury). The extra money was definitely welcome, but what attracted her most was the opportunity to revel in the surroundings that suited her best, more than home (or the semblance of it in the two-room flat she shared with three other girls), and the company of Mrs. Lim.

“Three days gone, Aarti,” said Mrs. Lim in her papery, not unkind voice, as Wednesday dawned bright and clear, two days before Christmas. “Three days of Christmas week, and I have hardly had any customers.”

“You don’t mind that much, do you, Mrs. Lim?” asked Aarti, pulling off her black cardigan and stowing it away neatly in a desk under the counter. “Except for the conversation, that is.” She put some coffee on, and turned to Mrs. Lim, looking clean and matronly, wrapped in a bright, colourful shawl, booty from the North East of India, her grey hair brushed neatly back into a bun.

“Yes, I miss the conversation. I definitely do. The money doesn’t really matter, it comes and goes, though I must confess things are getting a little difficult now.” She ran her age-withered fingers affectionately over a stack of leather-bound Chinese volumes, flicked some invisible dust off the glass surface of the table by which she sat, ensconced comfortably in a wicker chair. “Surrealism has been my only solace from the madness of the world. This place works wonders on me, Aarti. Though I know it inside out, every time I come in, I feel like there is some niche waiting to be discovered, some unknown spirit beckoning to me to come and make myself familiar to it. I can hardly understand the feeling.”

Aarti was quiet. So she wasn’t the only one. That made her feel a little strange, an absurd pain piercing through her bosom. She had always liked to believe she was different from the rest of the crowd, that there was something about her that gave her an aura of distance and mystery and a deep understanding, unfathomable to others, of inexplicable phenomena. She almost felt angry with Mrs. Lim for feeling the same way as she did. She silently poured out the coffee into two intricately designed cups, handed one of them to Mrs. Lim and carried the other back to the counter. She settled down with a book on Sufism, to all appearance keeping boredom at bay while she awaited the first customer for the day, though her attention was as far away from this brand of mysticism as possible, thoughts running riot at the back of her mind.

The noise. It was in her head again. The same noise that rang out like heavy cymbals, unceasing waves and the roar and insanity of traffic as she struggled to fall asleep every night, coming to a sudden stop the moment she abandoned the effort, the trance-inducing silence gently taking over and guiding her into a beguiling, satisfying slumber. Another of the innumerable mysteries it was, this incongruous noise, followed by an almost equally deafening silence which brought about tranquility and peace, as pure as the snow-fed, clear water of the brooks flowing on the upper reaches of unpolluted virgin mountains.

The first customers came and went. A tiresome middle-aged Indian couple, who wanted to be shown everything, wanted to touch and feel everything, looked uncomprehendingly at the masterly strokes of the Chinese alphabet in the aforementioned leather volumes, and then decided to buy nothing. “Just not good enough,” Aarti heard the husband whisper surreptitiously to his wife as they walked out, the woman’s hands reluctantly letting go of a jade necklace she had been admiring as he strode out, calling to her to come impatiently.

“Not enough taste,” Aarti felt like calling back, but pressed her lips into a thin line and continued with her book. She noticed that Mrs. Lim hadn’t even looked up all the while the couple were in the shop, not bothering to strike up a conversation with them as she did with more interesting, well-read, discerning customers. Mrs. Lim knew. She knew who the genuine lovers of art and mysticism were, who had it in them to appreciate quality. She had, of course, watched out of the corner of her eye as the husband commented and the wife whined, storing up in her mind for later criticism these specimens of inappropriate behaviour and ill-breeding.

The next customers were worse than this silly couple, a group of giggling girls who laughed endlessly at all that was morbid and dreary, tried to shoplift but gave up the attempt under Mrs. Lim’s piercing glance, finally walking out as the air started to get a little too heavy for uninterested minds.

And now, as Aarti settled back on her perch a third time, walked in the next threat to her peace and quiet, or to aggravate the noise in her head, the young man with brown hair. Aarti glanced up, put down her book, adjusted her glasses on the bridge of her nose, pushed back the invisible loose strand of hair behind her ear. Oblivious as she believed herself to be to the charms of young men, of foreign tourists who breezed in and breezed out, absorbed only in the curious things they came to collect, she couldn’t quite resist these little feminine indiscretions. She fell prey, often unknowingly, to the guiles that had been ingrained in her soul as an inheritance of the ages- hoping to be noticed, while pretending not to seek attention, though doing everything she possibly could to that very end.

Aarti slid off the stool, feeling unaccustomedly self-conscious, feeling the keen green eyes of the stranger bore into hers as he asked her a question in broken, exquisitely accented English. For the first time in her life, she simpered and stumbled as she answered a straightforward question, her usual confidence and poise taking an unnatural beating. Seeing that he had managed to elicit an answer where he saw none forthcoming, the foreigner embarked on another, more difficult question, hoping and praying to be lucky this time as well. Aarti hoped and prayed for confidence as well, wondering at her stupidity, angry with this stranger for having shown her in such bad light. Her anger gave her courage; she was soon drawn into a philosophic discussion on Chinese burial rituals with him, and they were both as sombre and as argumentative as they could get. Mrs. Lim, mistress of wisdom when it came to her beloved China, wisely refrained from pitching in when she saw the discussion go horribly off track, the two novices wading into unknown waters and floundering for support.

The discussion came to an abrupt halt. The business of buying and selling had been completely forgotten; Surrealism was ostentatiously a shop, but something else in heart and soul, a place that fostered conversation and a communion of kindred spirits. Then, the young man whose name was Heinz, said hesitantly, “There is something about this place, you know. I have been coming here since I was a boy, on trips with my parents, and now on my own for the first time; I begin to think I know it well, but then every time I come, I feel like it is a new journey. I have never known this feeling elsewhere. Can you tell me why?”

And he bent his head and looked keenly at the ground, as if expecting to find the keys to this great mystery in the smooth stone floor, to come seeping out and engulf him and protect him from the intense embarrassment he was experiencing, having finally asked a question that had bothered him for as long as he could remember.

Aarti stood rooted to the spot. All these weeks that she had worked here, she had heard this weird idea being voiced only twice. And in just one day. By two people, one of whom she loved and respected, the other…she suddenly realized that the noise in her head had abated, a clear consciousness was taking over.

“I know what you mean, Heinz. I feel the same way, and so does Mrs. Lim.” She spoke breathlessly, for this was the only question of Heinz’s that she didn’t have an answer to, and she didn’t want to admit it. She didn’t want him to think her stupid, or to think himself stupid, as he was evidently doing. She wanted to comfort him and tell him that it was okay to ask strange questions, rhetorical questions, questions that didn’t come with packaged answers.

“It’s okay if some mysteries lie unsolved, Heinz.”

“Is it?” A touch of scepticism came into his voice, and he looked askance at her.

“Yes, it is,” replied Aarti, the conviction in her voice wavering a little, as if mirroring his own doubts, but she continued forcefully, building up on the artifice. “All of us have these questions in our minds, and it’s okay to talk about them, because others have the same doubts as well. It is only natural that we should, human that we are.”

“So, you’ve been feeling the same way?”

“Ever since I’ve been working here.” The familiarity should help drive away the awkwardness, she thought, make him feel more comfortable and at home.

“And Mrs. Lim, too?”

“Yes. In fact, she told me so just this morning.”

“Okay. Then I guess there is nothing unique or different about it. Sorry I took so much of your time.” A look of mingled incredulity and disappointment swept into his eyes, he clutched at the strap of his backpack, turned and shuffled out of the doorway. He had worked his way to the Big Question carefully, prepared a great deal for it, spent agonising hours wondering if he would find anybody here capable enough to give him a sensible solution to his problem. Never had he dreamt it was such a commonplace thing. Not a word of thanks, no goodbye, just a wave of disappointment left in his wake.

The wind chimes tinkled as the door banged shut, disturbing the reverie that wrapped the store and its contents in a perennial dream, temporarily awakening the dormant spirits that awaited discovery. Bringing reality barging in like a marauder come to rip the romantics of their right to imagination and dreams. And with such success!

Monotony

Rain, romance, books. Romance, books, rain. Books, rain, romance.

All the frivolity that my life has been made up of over the past few weeks. I look back at my posts, and I want to be really hard on myself for having done hardly any sensible or introspective writing. I can't really help it, though, while the rain still falls against the sunshades and the window panes, and the roads are slick with the wet.

The houses stand sullen and morose, peas in a pod, all wearing the same mask of disinterest. The windows are hung about with clothes that refuse to dry, or blocked by men and women in search of a strong signal so their mobile phone conversations can continue uninterrupted. One or two odd windows provide more interesting views, into dimly-lit drawing rooms with artistically arranged paintings on pale walls; this must be a house where a young man in his mid-twenties lives alone, playing the violin and the piano, mourning a lost love, seeking comfort in the dull glow of unenthusiastic yellow lamps.

This isn't a day when you would possibly want to step out of your house. It is a day of ruined picnics. The grand plans to go out on the green and fly the growling little aeroplanes with mean-sounding engines have doubtless been scuppered by the unforeseen rain. The grass will not be strewn about with hampers and sheets, the workers will not go around in conical yellow and red hats, the couple in love will not walk, hands intertwined, lost in thought. The skies are heavy and dull with pain, they weep miserably, with the kind of anguish that pours forth without reason- you know how you cry sometimes, not knowing why you do, and it takes but a moment for you to be able to laugh again. The strange play of thoughts and moods.

Your eyes are heavy and drooping with sleep, but you're sleepless. The clothes on the yellow, green and red poles outside are wet and dripping with carbon-flecked rainwater. You see no point in drawing them in, for they will only form sulphurous puddles on the freshly cleaned floor. The bags from last night's shopping are strewn about in unshapely bundles, but despite your fastidiousness you don't find it in you to get off the couch and put things in their place.

The light just grows dimmer as morning lengthens into afternoon, afternoon stretches its weary legs into evening, twilight, one without colours for a change, as the morose clouds continue to behave like unappeased, hormone-ruined teenagers. Then night, then Monday morning.

Oh, the monotony of it all!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

An Alcoholic At Play

I've just got back from the library, stocked up for the next three weeks. I draw four books at a time, and more often than not, I don't have enough time to finish them. I wasn't too impressed with my selection last time; this time, as usual, after much deliberation and vacillation, I settled on four decent (or so I think) choices.

The Old Curiosity Shop- It's been a really long while since I attempted to read Dickens, having started and dropped three of his books midway, because they used to make me quite miserable. This time, though, I'm determined to finish the book.

The God of Small Things- I have been wanting to read this for a while, but always managed to forget about it on previous trips to the library. Hurrah for me, for having remembered it this time. I began reading it on the train ride back home, and I quite like Arundhati Roy's language. Let me see how it goes, whether I am going to draw comparisons with Jhumpa Lahiri and Kiran Desai, the last two Indian authors I read.

The Merry-Go-Round- I read some of Somerset Maugham's short stories during the most difficult two years of my relatively easy life, and found that, though worlds removed from my life, there were certain thoughts and ideas I could very much identify with. I have been trying to get my hands on more Maugham ever since, and I'm glad I've finally done it.

A Book Addict's Treasury- I stumbled upon this book by Julie Rugg and Lynda Murphy quite by accident, having wandered into a section I don't really frequent. And there were these books about books, and I was fascinated by the blurb of this particular book, aimed at people who smell books before they read them, rearrange other people's shelves and own more books than they can possibly ever read. Now, how on earth do Ms. Rugg and Ms. Murphy know me so well? I really want to know. I am looking forward to reading this book.

Homeward bound, I decided to take a different route for a change. Instead of going back through the crowded Bugis mall, I decided to walk through another crowded mall. I wended my way through Raffles City, all a-glitter for Christmas. Now this is a mall that you can really appreciate only if you have just come into a huge inheritance, or experienced a windfall of some sort. Swarovski, Louis Vuitton, Starbucks...oh yes, the last of these I can manage. However, I do choose my coffee with care. I remember how, not quite comprehending the composition behind the names, I ordered American-some-name-coffee, and ended up with a 'small' cup of pure decoction. (The hazelnut muffin was pretty good, though- I wasn't deceived there.)

Since arriving in Singapore and making a tiny discovery at the supermarket some weeks ago, I have been branded an alcoholic. Now, any respectable person would have read enough Enid Blyton to know that her characters live to eat rather than the other way around- buttered scones, macaroons, sausages, sandwiches- often topped off by lemonade or orangeade or gingerbeer. Gingerbeer. The drink of contention. I was delighted when I discovered it at the supermarket, and since I was sure it would be mistaken for beer, the first time I brought it home, I spared the girls the sight of it to avoid scandalising them. But then I thought, what on earth, they need to learn some time that gingerbeer is not beer, and so I got another can one evening and put in the fridge, not in a very prominent position, but it was still an improvement on the secrecy.

Then, at night, when I brought the chilled can out, a voice piped up, laced with mild horror- "Jaya, is that beer?" Consternation and shock from a houseful of girls who have always stayed as far away from alcohol as possible (which is probably why we still haven't come around to visiting Clarke Quay). Patient explanation followed (and I've done this quite a few times since, asking people to go back to their Enid Blyton- how can they not remember?), and thankfully, gingerbeer and rum-raisin chocolate are not treated as contraband substances at home.

Christmas cheer is all around. You can see it in the smile of the salesperson as she says cheerily, "Thank you, Miss", in the coloured lights strung across the avenues, hear it in the chirpy, nonsensical laughter of teenagers, delighted with their newly-filled shopping bags. Walk two steps and you stumble upon a Christmas tree. This is the holiday season, tourists are flowing in, walking arm-in-arm through the aisles of the malls, eyeing the designer gowns and the diamond jewellery, the swanky yellow and red cars on display- looking for an expensive present for themselves?

And oh, I've just bought a cow. There it was on the tray, a black and white cow with sparkling black eyes, and though I felt rather silly buying it, I couldn't resist it. Now all I need is a Swiss name for my China-made stuffed toy. Perhaps a little silver bell too.

I have discovered a shop selling German wooden dolls, and how marvellous they are! Angelic little dolls; pot-bellied, puffy-cheeked, smoking men; a delightful Christmas tree with snow spilling on it continuously. At the moment, I cannot think of going on a shopping spree, especially of spending extravagantly on all these tantalising trifles that are laid out so temptingly, beguiling and bewildering, despite, or owing to, their uselessness. Yet again, I wonder if it is a celebration of commercialisation with saintly voices singing Ave Maria in the background, or just a distraction from the monotony and frugality of regular life.

Basil. Rose. Rotten fruit. Fragrances and odours mingle in the closed air of the train compartment. French. Tamil. Chinese. English. Such a mixture everywhere, a hybridisation of the most curious kind. Something doesn't make enough sense. I have been up working all night, slept three hours when I got back. Now, I am supposed to be in bed, AC on, covers drawn up to my chin. Instead, I'm sitting up alone, enjoying the peace and quiet of half-past ten at night, savouring the anticipation of four new books to read over the next three weeks. Trying to comprehend the mysteries around me. Oh well. You live only once, and it is just as well at times not to know what exactly you're about.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Stranded

Now I'm unable to log into the chat channel at work. In this job, you're absolutely crippled without it, because this is the primary way you talk to users, get them to plead with you, threaten you, be sarcastic. This is how you holler to your next level for help.

So I called up the support desk, and poured out my woes to the man in Australia whose name I couldn't quite catch. Not surprisingly, he said he'd never heard of such an issue. People get their accounts locked, lose their passwords, have petty problems of the not-so-important (when it doesn't happen to me, that is) kind. Being entirely barred from the chat channel for no fault of mine, as the support person could easily see, is weird. I wanted to tell him, no, this isn't strange. Because it is me that it is happening to. Extraordinary mishaps almost always begin here.

(Now even the label for the post is throwing an error. Seems like the software demons are out to get me today. When did I last experience an error on blogger?!)

Monday, December 08, 2008

When Things Go Right and Wrong


Does Yorkshire look a little bit like this?


The railway tracks, as viewed from the other side of the road.

I can't sleep.

I can hear the wind chimes down the corridor, their glassy tinkle penetrating through the closed door and the iron grills. A strong, rather cyclonic wind is whistling and huffing heavily through the streets, bending the trees over, sending the raindrops slanting across the sunshades and the windows. It has been raining incessantly since last night. The few pauses, when they do come, don't really last long. The cars and the trucks are splashing through the thin film of water on the roads. The eighteenth floor does give you a good vantage point.

After having been sleepless all night and going to bed at four in the morning, only to realise that I wasn't sleepy yet, my roommate and I rose at seven, planning to pick up another of our flatmates returning from a week-long visit to India. My roommate was equally sleepless, thanks to a phone call at midnight that left her wide awake till morning. We picked up my laptop, fished about for flight schedules, and found the flight number, only to realise the plane had already landed, and getting through a couple of calls later, she asked us not to come all the way- she was already starting for home. While all this transpired, we were already in the elevator, and deciding that it would be a waste of dressing up and perfectly good weather, we went for a walk.

The weather was truly marvellous- a fresh, cold breeze was blowing, the rain had just stopped, and thin, white, filmy clouds were floating across a grey sky, just touching the tops of the trees in the distance. We promptly went crazy. (My roommate and I are normally considered the craziest people at home, for our tendency to set off and go nowhere on our own, not to be overly sentimental, not to be saccharine-sweet girlish- we were just living up to the label.) I had been wanting to go out on those open green areas that stretch out beyond where the eye can see, which I liken, perhaps ignorantly, to the moors. Impulsive that we both were, we crossed the road over to the grassy area, almost running up the slope, feeling the wind and the rain in our bones. I cannot begin to describe the sense of freedom I felt there, standing against the wind, turning in every direction to look at incredible beauty. Then the rain started falling softly, and we made our way home slowly, allowing the wind to ruffle our hair and make our clothes flutter.

Approaching our building by a rather normal route than usual, we had a call from our returning flatmate saying she'd already arrived, and would we please come and open the door for her. We cut the long walk short and rushed back up the elevator, to find her laden with bags, looking fresh and comforted by the trip back home, and rather unwilling, naturally, to set off for work in the afternoon.

I hadn't slept all night. I made an attempt to go to sleep on the sofa. I couldn't, as the girls kept coming in one after another, looking for something or talking. I tried watching the rain, hoping it would lull me to sleep. No good. I read for a while. My eyes grew tired, but sleep still evaded me. After a long while, just as I was dozing off, I heard an uproar in the kitchen. My roommate came and broke the news to me- our electric cooker had just stopped working. I am the eternal optimist, though. I told her it was a blessing the cooker belonged to us and not to the landlady. Also, we have enough chapati and rum-raisin chocolate to last us a day. Why worry?

The rain still hasn't stopped falling, the cars have had their headlights on since last night. The weather is lovely, and instead of curling up in bed with a book, I am setting off for work now. But oh, first I must have dinner. Dal-roti. Followed by chocolate.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Superficial Look At People

The house smells of sleep and capsicum, overriding the floral fragrance of the detergent used for a round of washing at two o’clock in the morning. All is quiet and still, as usual, except for the dull roar of the table fan and the odd car passing by. There never is much noise around outside: occasionally, on the train, you hear men involved in an animated conversation, all incomprehensible, alien and safe from these ears wholly untrained to this foreign language and its various sounds.

What does a Chinese family live like? I am curious to know. I want to study their relationships and their spiritual lives. On my way to the LRT station, Kadaloor, I glance at the ‘Kopitiam’ restaurant, omnipresent in Singapore- supposedly multi-cuisine. Here, I see young men and women in shorts and sleeveless tops lounging on lazy afternoons or wielding their chopsticks on unfathomable dishes. A strong, smoky odour assails my senses as I pass by. Occasionally, you’d also find a maami in a cotton sari and wearing diamond earrings, sitting straight-backed, trying to make sense of the Indian food placed in front of her, looking rather uncomfortable, perhaps because she is sitting by the table of a man downing endless bottles of beer. This is also where you can find aged Chinese matrons with short-cropped grey hair, dressed in bright-coloured, flowered shirts and ill-fitting trousers, gesticulating wildly and explaining matters of importance to younger, less enlightened women. They stand there, feet apart, bent at the waist, and though there is a smile of contentment across their wrinkled faces, you know they have seen much and been through their share of hardship and suffering.

I remember how, in my first weeks of the morning shift, as I took the first train to work, it was a strange comfort to see a particular group of elderly women board the train, cheerful and wide awake, while people less than half their age would invariably nod off. Dressed in gaudy colours but never looking odd, appearing full of resolution and purpose, they would set off every morning to I know not where; but it is truly a delight to see such vigour and vim in faces worn by time, age and experience.

The train is, of course, a wonderful place to study people. The loners, the studious ones with noses buried in books (no prizes for guessing what category I’d fall into- though we can get rid of the adjective here), the women with flawless skin, any blemishes well hidden under layers of thick pancake-like make-up (making my own tremendous efforts at putting on lip gloss and kaajal seem like child’s play), children coming home from school or freshly scrubbed and dressed for a party, young gorgeous girls in little black dresses immaculately tailored, coming probably from one of the numerous boutiques in one of the uncountable malls. Men in mismatched shorts and shirts or smart suits, slicked-back hair, one or two coming in with some weird contraption like an oar(!) in hand, or a teenager with a video game console. This latter species is a definite presence in any train you board.

People everywhere. And yet, it’s all so quiet and peaceful. The storms rage only within the bosoms of men and women, and just sometimes manifest themselves in fearful forms. Through it all, the deceptive calm prevails.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Parting

The purple clouds have gathered unobtrusively, yet again. They are in a state of indecision, you know that split second when they are trying to make up their minds, Shall we stay or leave? A group decision- and now they're done, and I'm glad they have decided to stay. Very softly the rain starts. A gentle, merry tinkle against the glass; a slanting stroke, then vertical, and then anyhow. Lightning flashes, thunder growls through the clouds, the wind blows in through the open windows, sending the pamphlets from the Expo flying across the hall. I won't be able to see the reflections of distant aeroplanes on the smooth floor today. Indeed, it is delightful when a plane flies by, high, so high, and you see it as a tiny speck moving across the floor.

While I have been romanticising thus, the rainwater has come in through the open window. Oh, bother! I am not going to get up and close it now. The rain that had fallen so heavily a quarter of an hour ago, wrapping everything in white, is slowing down to a drizzle. The clouds are not quite spent, the thunder and the lightning still linger; probably, the clouds have another appointment to keep.

In the midst of this sublime manifestation of bliss and delight, just one thought creeps in to tone it down and keep me mindful of reality- in an hour, I shall have to be up and start getting ready for work. Patches of blue, very faintly tinged with pink, are becoming visible in the sky. Yes, the clouds are parting, reminding me that the brief meeting has come to an end; the briefer these moments, the sweeter they will be. No tearful goodbyes, no hysterical promises, but just quiet, strong, faithful assurance.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Here Come The First Pictures




I have a new camera. Inevitable, isn't it then, that I should go over the top with excitement and fill this page with some pictures of Singapore? What you see here isn't the real thing at all, just a tiny portion of a vast residential colony. Note the sameness, how one building is so much like another; yet, it is peaceful, undisturbed living (except for the grating noise of the construction site across the road). On the next of my travels through the city, I shall attempt to get some pictures of the real thing, of the dazzle and the serenity, of the lovely roads lined with palm trees and bougainvillea, of buildings rising way, way up into the sky, imposing, incredible and splendid in their height and architecture; nature and modernity meeting.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Back, At Last, For Good

Yes, I finally have a laptop. And no, it’s not pink in colour. After nearly three months of patient waiting and almost-total lack of blogging, I now have the gates open again to the world I actually inhabit.

I haven’t done much exploring since I last wrote, and there isn’t really much to talk of in terms of experience and novelty. However, I have had the opportunity to do some interesting reading, have a few intriguing conversations and learn a little more about living on my own.
When you are in Singapore and decide to go exploring, you invariably end up in a shopping mall. Naturally, when you see swanky buildings all around, some architecture that leaves you marvelled at the ingenuity of the human brain, dazzling lights that entice and enchant, you cannot help but be drawn to the glitz and the splendour, no matter how much you admire simplicity and plainness.

So it was that, on a couple of occasions, I ended up in shopping malls, riding up and down the escalators, getting lost in the milling crowds of diverse humanity. The variety is flabbergasting- and yet, sometimes, when you are not quite in the mood for it, there might be a tinge of sameness and boredom to it all- the same shops selling the same stuff in different avatars.
At night, I look out of the huge glass windows at the rows of lights on the streets, glittering out of the windows of the box-like houses, made distinct only by the people that inhabit them. An unnaturally voyeuristic desire to peep into those windows creeps up; what are the lives of these people like, how have they decorated their houses, what kind of food do they eat, what are their dreams and aspirations like? In the end, I come to the conclusion that perhaps there isn’t much to separate one house from another, after all. Sameness. All over again. Monotonous in one way, reassuring in another, especially when you are in a foreign country.

The library has been one constant factor, one pillar of support, so to speak. It never allows me to lapse into self-pitying bouts of homesickness. There is always comfort to be sought from long, hard days (or nights, because I work in shifts) in books of various kinds. Literature, religion, and a little bit of contemporary fiction- that has been my reading over the past couple of months, and I’m really trying to go beyond the boundaries that I seem to have unconsciously set for myself.
So many of my thoughts have lain dormant, haven’t found an outlet and died away unspoken. Not that they were spectacular or would have changed the world; still, it always feels good to let some of your weirder thoughts come out in the open, see how people react to them.

At this point, I don’t have a clue as to what I’m writing. These weeks of literary inactivity will take their toll, extract their pound of flesh, no matter how much I might have composed in my head. Revenge from what you love best.

I have Celtic music playing in the background. Haunting, soft, and transporting me to the Highlands. I can almost see the long-haired man in his kilt, standing high up on a cliff, his maiden hanging on to his arm, leaning on his strength, both looking out on a clear lake, feeling the power of nature and of love. What visions good music can conjure up! Celtic tunes have the most magical names- sample this: Solitude, Soft Day, Celtic Dreams, Eventide, Morning Rain, Halcyon Memories, Reverie, Ciara’s Tune…I have found some good Celtic music here in Singapore- an interest that will hopefully develop and bring with it knowledge and travel.

Those moments of disillusionment still persist- am I really in a different country? Is life really galloping by at such a pace, have I already been here for nearly three months? At times, it seems like a really short period of time to account for some of the long, arduous days that have gone by; at others, it is incredible to think I’ve been abroad for three months already. Abroad. I. Who grew up mostly in small towns, enjoying the sequestered comfort of anonymity and home. Setting up my own niche in an alien country, liking it and enjoying the feeling of getting lost among strangers.

Oh, I could go on writing tonight. All the lovely stories I’ve read want to tumble and slip over one another, beautiful scenes come to mind- is it the music, or is it just me? The excitement is not palpable, yet it bubbles and simmers underneath, quietly rising to the surface, tempered, though, by some inexplicable, unknown element. What this element is, I cannot quite figure out. I’m not even trying to. There is no harm in being quietly controlled in terms of emotions. I have not known myself to be overly gregarious in the past few years.

Christmas is around the corner. A month away? Sure it is; but the shopping malls here tell a different story. Look at the lights, the brightly decorated Christmas trees in every possible nook, the shoppers (not quite symptomatic of a festival in Singapore, maybe, because shopping seems to be the express purpose why people come here in the first place), the quantities of wonderful things to see and buy- makes it seem like there is no poverty in the world, like it is always full of Christmas cheer, that the smiling salesperson by the display of toys has not a care on his mind. Somewhere in the distance, a baritone rings out, exulting in the arrival of Christmas. However, I wonder if the excitement wouldn’t pall in a little while; if this early anticipation of fun and goodies is not taking away a bit of the spirituality that ought to be associated with the occasion. I don’t mean that zealots should take over the world and preach doctrines to everybody that goes by. However, there does seem to be something rather commercial and artificial about all that is being associated with Christmas. The real purpose seems to be buying and selling, intentional or not. That said, I cannot help confessing that wandering through the aisles of gift shops, I felt the urge to buy uninhibitedly and give away- only, here, there is nobody to give to.

It is maddening that I cannot connect to the Internet yet, and shall have to wait another day, perhaps more, before I can update my blog and connect to the world that is really mine. Along with the books now, there is going to be something more to look forward to. Life, as I always say (barring in moments of extreme pessimism), is indeed beautiful.

PS: This was typed out yesterday, when I was yearning to blog and couldn't connect to the Internet. Happily enough, the wireless problems have been sorted out, and I don't think I shall sleep tonight, because I have reconnected with the world I've been missing for so long.

Monday, November 03, 2008

An Unlikely Backpacker

And what do you know? If conditions are conducive enough, if the gods are kind, if the heart rules over the head and impulses take control too quickly for resistance, wonders happen. For instance, my walking up and down the streets of Singapore all alone, exploring, feeling like a tourist and enjoying it, stumbling upon interesting sights and sounds- this is a wonder, if you know me. Back home in India, I was never fond of venturing out of home. Now, however, I crave for opportunities to set out like a backpacker, pretending to be a backpacker and sniffing out all the nooks and crannies that attract people to this big city, or little country, however you choose to look at it.

It was this impulse that prevailed over the sterner stirrings of common sense Saturday afternoon, and led me to achieve what weeks of planning could not- a trip through Chinatown.

On my way home from the library, armed with four books, my reading supply for the next three weeks, I made the sudden decision to go to Chinatown. Knowing full well that my head was fighting a last-minute, losing battle with my heart, I stepped off the train at Chinatown station, and thus began my adventure. For I did not know where I wanted to go, which exit to take. I headed for the locality map and studied the names of the places around the station. The hotels and the law courts certainly did not appeal to me; Temple Street, Pagoda Street and Culture Street, though, had a definite touristy ring to them. Besides, these seemed like the areas most likely to house a monastery (let me explain here that visiting a monastery has been one of my cherised dreams ever since I set foot in Singapore).

So off I went through Exit A, stepping right into the narrow aisles of shops selling jewellery, souvenirs, clothes and watches, keeping the sun away with their roofs drawing close together. Behind these stalls are numerous restaurants and shops selling antiques and Chinese medicine. The upper storey of each building is old-fashioned and quaint, with wooden windows painted blue, green and yellow, one facade adorned with red elliptical objects. One of these shops, though some inexplicable incongruity in the middle of a Chinese settlement, is home to a Cuban cigar enterprise. Maybe I shouldn't be too surprised at it, after all, for this area is a confluence of nationalities, settlers and tourists, where Austrian bread and German sausages (http://wuerstelstand.blogspot.com/) are sold beside Chinese incense. No Chinese music here, though; I hear Dancing Queen at one stall, Ronan Keating at the next. Any Chinese pop seems like an aberration.

I decided to leave the shopping for later and just walk through the streets. There is something simple, timeless and charming about these old streets and the antiquated architecture, making an old-fashioned heart feel fiercely protective of them. Looking upwards, you see the quaint buildings juxtaposed against soaring, ambitious skyscrapers; this, a quiet little world much removed from today, thriving and flourishing, inviting people to experience what was, once upon a time. You feel a sympathy for it, as it stands there gracefully like some of the less fortunate elderly, making a mute appeal not to be misunderstood and shunted out in the wake of younger, sprightlier settlements. How I felt the contrast, coming away from the starting, sputtering fountains of Bugis Junction, the splendid facade of the Intercontinental, the designer boutiques where people spend till siezed by guilt, the cool dim comfort of the library.

(The Unlikely Backpacker's exploring will continue into the next post, as the real thing is yet to come, and requires quite a bit of detailing and patience- the monastery, the story behind the Street of the Dead, and any other exploring that I might manage to squeeze in before my next post.)

Just Another Day

Before I set out to write what I really mean to, I must mention that the day has begun on a rather disappointing note. Felipe Massa losing the title to Lewis Hamilton by just one point, and that too through a freakish, improbable incident, is not very good news for someone who has admired the little Brazilian since his Sauber days. Oh well, there is always another season to come. At the moment, I am terribly glad I don't live in England, for it would be difficult to live with the deifying that the British media are probably already giving Hamilton.

Now, for a few days, I shall probably be writing my posts down on paper at home and then typing them out when I manage to find a computer. I have realised I am not good at writing out of my head in full public glare, thanks to all the mistakes I can think of in my last post. (No, don't try to go back there and nitpick- I have smoothed out most of the glaring ones.)

Sunday - 2 November, 2008

Flashes of lightning streak the folds of ghostly white cloud that shrouds large swathes of the smooth midnight sky; blazes of gold and silver, sinister and unearthly, a momentary grimace before the sky lapses back into its deceptive peace, broken intermittently by the blip of an aeroplane.

The television blares in the hall and I shut myself up in the bedroom I share with another girl. When six girls share an apartment, moments of absolute privacy are hard to come by, and yet, there is no intrusion or interference, which is almost as good.

Unfinished stories, hopeful dreams and fantasies continue to take shape in my head, little shoots seeking nourishment in soil more fertile than the kind they are currently planted in. They want to break out and become real.

The beautiful, ethereal sunsets still enchant me, swirls of clouds in amazing patterns, a different one everyday, lit up by the fading rays of the dipping sun- such beauty in parting! The most incomprehensible shades of rose, amber, gold and violet are spilt from the palette of the sky and splashed across folds of blue canvas every evening, never failing to surprise and stupefy with their glory and sheer loveliness. This, interrupted by spells of sudden, unexpected rain- the weather is one thing I really shan't complain about.

I find myself alone at home at times, and I cherish these few, rare hours of absolute freedom and privacy. I write, read, make disastrous, not-to-be-spoken-0f-secret-like-the-dead attempts at cooking. I always thought I liked small, cosy houses- I realise this house isn't too big for one person, after all. With so much space at your disposal, you can assert yourself and tailor niches to cater to each different mood, let the house exude your personality. I see the first unhealthy stirrings of materialistic ambition here- for I would love to have an apartment of my own someday, stacked from ceiling to floor with books, looking out at mountains and the sea, colour, fire and sobriety all packed into a bit of space all my own.

Oh, by the way, did I mention I am also discovering Enid Blyton's food here? While no Indian living in England has yet given me a satisfactory description of an English tea, I think I have made reasonably decent progress here, having discovered chocolate and blueberry muffins and gingerbeer. There is much else I could discover, but for my vegetarian preferences, which I guard fiercely.

And so life goes on, with unanticipated surprises at every turn, new realisations, adventures and experiences.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Foreigner in Singapore

Life works in incredulous ways, or so I thought, when I found myself miles away from home in a country I'd never dreamed I would be in. Just a few weeks after I'd been wondering if I'd ever have a chance to go abroad, I found myself bang in the middle (not quite literally) of Singapore, especially when the first-ever F1 night race, the Singapore GP, was around the corner. Contrary to popular belief, I didn't attend the race- did not even catch it on television, thanks to work. I did, however, catch the briefest glimpse of a Ferrari and what I assumed to be a BMW zooming by during qualifying, as our taxi passed by a section of the track. I was thrilled about it, about having got to hear the whine of the engines of F1 cars, having actually spotted a Ferrari- I raved about the 'event' to anybody who cared to listen (never mind that the number of such people was fewer than I'd have liked).

I never meant to disappear without notice, but everything happened pretty fast and with astonishing suddenness, so I couldn't write a decent hiatus blog. Anyway, I'm glad I didn't- one month and a half isn't really a hiatus, is it?

I first realised I really was in another country when I applied for a library membership and was asked,"You are a foreigner, right?" With hundreds of South Asian faces popping up in the sea of spotless creamy-complexioned ones, you don't really feel out of place. So what is Singapore like? Indescribably clean, organised, glittering with the lights of malls and skyscrapers. I stay with five other girls in an eighteenth-storey flat, and I like looking out at the sky, uninhibited and vast, spreading out in the distance, puffy clouds splayed across the smooth blue. As darkness falls, the lights come twinkling on, and there comes my only grudge- I can hardly see any stars, for the glow of neon obscures everything that is pure and natural. One spectacular sight I remember, though, is of a yellow oval moon suspended in the sky a few nights ago, dark clouds swirling about it.

There is much I need to explore here in Singapore, and I made a start with the National Library. It is Paradise. I have no other word for it. Every author I ever wanted to read adorns the vast shelves of the library, and you could just go in and get lost and never ever want to come out. Bliss of the highest order. (More raving later.) By the way, these are the books I have finished over the last few weeks: E M Forster's The Longest Journey, which I cannot claim to have thoroughly understood, but nevertheless liked; Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, exquisitely written, but a little jarring and discordant (as I felt) in its use of tenses as it wavered back and forth between past and present; Muriel Maufroy's book Rumi's Daughter, a breezy little book, but a bit too heavily inspired by The Alchemist, sometimes to the point of rephrasing ideas mentioned by Paulo Coelho. Currently, I'm reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Warton.

Office is by the ocean, quite close to Sentosa. You can see the head of the Merlion poking into the sky, often hidden by one of the cruise ships that float in. Some of the ships are admirable- long, sleek, sailing in slowly and gracefully. The waters of the Indian Ocean change colour every hour, sometimes green, at other times grey, never still, rippling in the moonlight or catching the shimmer of the sun. They conspire with the elements and send up sudden clouds which spread out across the sky imperceptibly, opening up as light, soft showers of rain. What I miss here is the fragrance of moist soil, for it is mostly cement and concrete all over, and you never really hear the water gurgling through drains or your feet go squelching through the mud.

There is much I want to talk about, but as I am in a tearing hurry, I don't think I'll do enough justice to any of it. I spent the whole afternoon in anticipation of this single hour of blogging, and that should explain how much I've missed it. This post is incoherent and disorganised, more so than usual, but I know I shall sleep easy for a few nights.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Home

I am in Hyderabad. This is home.

You form a bond with certain places without realising it. They seep into you, ingrain your soul with their elements, fill your subconscious. Then one day, all of a sudden, you realise that despite the chaos and the denial, you are a part of them and vice versa, and if you choose to accept it, you will find peace and fulfillment.

This afternoon, I went with my aunt to a place she goes to on weekends to learn Carnatic music. Her aim is not to be a perfectionist or to attain mastery over the ragas and sing flawlessly. What she looks for is peace, and she finds it in music, in the swelling of the notes that have been sung for ages and still continue to permeate homes and be absorbed by people seeking God and a return to their roots and tradition. I was reminded of my own sessions in Vizag with my mother. She sings well; I tried to learn, realised I had other priorities, but that I enjoyed it just for the sense of upliftment it gave me, and the inexplicable contact with the Unknown. The sense of accomplishment was larger when the music felt mysterious, touched my soul and moved me to tears than when I managed to do some reasonably good singing.

My aunt and I decided to go to the temple nearby after we were done with the music class, but it was closed. So we went back there a little while ago, taking a walk to do away with the sluggishness of Saturday evening, an inevitable result of all the lazing around and inactivity of the morning and the afternoon. A gentle breeze sprang up almost as soon as we were out on the road, stirring up the dust that had lain on the road all afternoon and sending paper and other debris flying. We went to the Guruvayurappan Temple.

Ethereal and mysterious is how I'd define it. My mother went there as a girl, and I have been to the temple many times over the years, but it still fills me with awe every time I visit it. As a child, I used to be amazed by, and slightly frightened of, the huge, horizontal statue of Vishnu reclining on His snake-bed. When I was younger, the statue seemed gigantic. It doesn't seem that way any longer (and I regret it for some reason), but it continues to entrance me. The numerous oil lamps cast an unearthly light on the stone statues; Krishna, simply arrayed in white and a bit of silver, looked out in majesty from his sanctum sanctorum.

The temple has a line of white-painted statues of the ten Avataars of Lord Vishnu. I remember looking up at them every time I went there; I did so again today. While I have stopped pondering over the stories behind them (the curses of growing up!), I still look at them with fascination. I am so glad I know and remember the temple, and that it hasn't changed too much. Certain things don't stagnate if they remain unchanged; they just bring with them a sense of tranquillity and reassurance.

Some kind of subtle, incomprehensible energy vibrates through the air of holy places, reducing you to tears though you might be the happiest person on the planet, making your heart swell with gratitude, even if you think you never get what you ask for. This is the power that makes you question all the suffering and insanity of life, and then, in unknown ways, assures you of its presence and concern.

The streets of Hyderabad are chaotic and crazy. The dust chokes you as you try to weave your way through the vehicles that dash, crawl or struggle their way down the road. It might take you a while to get used to the startling dialect of Telugu spoken here if you've spent twelve years listening to another. The heat is stifling. However, the rain surprises you, making up for all the hours of discomfort, and right now, a pleasant, cool breeze is floating in through the windows. The rain has stopped, but I can hear the lively patter of the water sliding off the leaves onto the moist, fragrant earth in the garden. More importantly, I know this is a place that I can always come back to, whose minarets, temples, people and rocky hills are familiar to me and will haunt me throughout my life, wherever I might be.

I know I am here for a reason that I cannot explain, and that this is home.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Some Unremarkable Days

Paraphrasing EM Forster from The Longest Journey: I shall talk away. If I bore you, you have blogs. The blogger who has no blog will be obliged to listen to my story.

I believe I mentioned once that I was going to turn into a saint. I wasn't even one-thiry-six-thousandths of the way there when the decline began. The reason? Change. A whole lot of it. Oh well, all for the best.

Here are some glimpses from my life at work. While I've never said too much about life at college (most episodes from that period talk about bus-rides), I suppose I'll have to be even more taciturn when it comes to work. This is an environment I'm entirely new to; I don't know what I can safely talk about without being penalised for, there is a good deal of confidentiality, stiffness and unfamiliarity. Just a matter of time, though, before I get accustomed to the strangeness of it all.

Every morning, as I walk to my building, I watch preoccupied people walk swiftly to the food court or to their cubicles. No loitering, no ambling. No time to enjoy the stray ray of sunlight that catches a drop of water on the emerald grass, making it shimmer. And so they go, serious-eyed, sullen-jawed. Magnifying anxieties that don't exist. I bite back the smile that threatens to rise on my lips: do I look the same way when I'm just as preoccupied with myself, anxious about something to happen on a particular day? Certainly. There probably is that unrecognisable soul there then, camouflaged in the crowd that trickles in, taking note and laughing at people's imaginary worries.

I have had a relatively peaceful time here, haven't been involved in any major mishaps (which might explain, to a certain extent, the reason for this blog getting rather insipid over the past few days), not embarrassed myself or anyone else. Some minor excitement, though, came along in the form of an extremely rapid walk to catch the 7.30 bus on Monday evening. Which brings us to Monday morning, so that I can begin at the beginning.

I must have walked a couple of yards from the gate when the strap of my bag snapped; I was thankful it happened near home, and not someplace from where there would be no coming back for a replacement. I dashed back in, grabbed another bag, dumped my things into it, and re-started my walk to the bus stop. I always get there pretty early, so missing the bus, fortunately, was something I didn't have to worry about.

Should this have given me an indication as to what the day ahead would be like? No. Undaunted by omens (no matter what The Alchemist says), I went about my day with a clear head. Until evening came. I had to send an email, and when I pressed the 'Send' button, the time was around 7.20. I switched off my computer and ran into the elevator at the fourth floor, where I 'work'. That was when a group of four or five people chose to take their own sweet time getting in, and spent some precious seconds convincing a friend (who was busy with her cell phone) to enter the lift as well. Was she claustrophobic? No, I don't think so- just agonisingly indecisive. The time was 7.25 when I got to the ground floor.

Five minutes was never enough time to walk to the main gate from a building miles away, but a friend and I attempted it- at a walking speed that would have made Usain 'Lightning' (to use a newspaper cliche) Bolt squirm with embarrassment. We even made it to the main gate at 7.30. After which, I was treated to the sight of my bus taking a turn and speeding down (through a stream of cars; not quite speeding, but it lends the scene some effect) the road, mercilessly unaware of my pleading eyes and speechlessness. You don't need a splendid imagination to realise how it must have felt to miss the last bus to your destination; of course, there were alternatives, but it still was a rotten feeling. One good thing, though- the driver was an unscrupulously punctual man, and he must be appreciated for leaving at 7.30, much as I didn't care to, then.

So, the next time I had to take the 7.30 bus, I left by 7.10. This time, the bus left at 7.35. I should have known.

(Digression: I was wearing this particular dress on Monday that I normally avoid when I have something important to do. The clothes you wear can influence the things that happen to you, or so Brida says. I think I agree, to a certain extent. For instance, there were certain dresses that I avoided like the plague on exam days, simply because I'd worn them for some previous exam that didn't go off too well.)

That is about all I have to relate from two-and-a-half weeks of work, the newest bit of adventure in my life. Certain episodes shall remain censored, or will be dealt with offline, as they say here.

PS: One incident that I have to mention, for the indignation it aroused in me- a person here asked me where I was from, and when I said,"Vizag", he gave me an "Oh-so-you're-from-a-different-planet?" look. Vizag. Visakhapatnam. Not so very nondescript, is it?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Rainy Morning

It rained heavily this morning. Cats and dogs? Now there's an understatement.

So, the rain fell as if the blue heavens were hell-bent upon dispelling the heavy, grey clouds from their tranquil kingdom. The clouds surrendered meekly, but turned their fury upon the earth, disrupting 'normal life' in the process. Why does it always rain when people are going to school or to work?

At the bus-stop, a 'colleague' (the quotes shall remain until I can get used to the word) told me that the bus might be late; that it often happened on rainy days. Now that isn't good news on a morning when you're hoping to get to office as soon as you can(!) so you can finish a report. Thankfully, he was about as accurate as a meteorologist on TV, and the bus arrived on time. Getting in was an ordeal; the umbrella, in an inevitable accident as I closed it, dripped its water all over me, soaking my neatly ironed dress. Cotton is a bad choice for wet days. (Not that I didn't know it; some people refuse to learn from experience.)

I was in deep danger of falling out of love with the rain. What with ankles soaked in debris-filled rainwater swirling through the pits and pockmarks of a road that had probably never seen smooth days, drenched clothes, and a report to finish, I wasn't exactly in a sunny mood. This is me we're talking about, though, and an old friend. Sense prevailed soon enough, and I began to enjoy the bus ride through the rain, never mind that I was still struggling with my umbrella and my heavy handbag. However, I missed the sight of rich, fertile hills veiled by misty clouds. The landscape here is relatively barren, rocky and plain. The wiper swept across the windshield, forming arcs even as the drops fell forcefully against the glass.

And what do you know? By mid-morning, all was bright and happy in the kingdom high up there, not exactly cheerless down here...and I used my umbrella to keep the sun from my face. You would never have known that the morning had been wet and uncomfortable, that the rain had looked like it would never stop.

A wet morning tomorrow wouldn't be unwelcome. I think I can already smell rain in the air.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Green Canopy in Paati's Backyard



Green-gold light. Blue skies. The glorious, generous shade of the trees restraining the fury of the warm August sun. All on a lazy, peaceful Saturday morning.

Where are the Good Books?

I have done enough empty reading. Why are these books even written? The private lives of unknown, non-existent people shredded apart, tears spilt, promises made and repeatedly broken, captured on television or as cinema, money spent, plenty of precious hours wasted- this is how I'd describe pulp fiction. For that is what I feel many of these 'bestselling' paperbacks are. Someone in America creates a huge fuss over how 'heart-rending, gut-wrenching and powerful' some amorous story is and puts it on the Top Ten list of half a dozen American newspapers. Soon, it becomes a 'must-read', a book you cannot miss, a book that has changed people's lives forever and will continue to do so for ages to come. The author sells 897 million copies, becomes the highest selling author in history ahead of JK Rowling and Danielle Steel (some yardstick), wins a handful of unheard of literary prizes. Then there is chick-lit- books expounding on the life and times of youngish women of urban upbringing, suitors aplenty, with a satisfying job and designer tastes. If the book is Indian, the protagonist is probably an IIT/IIM product or a software professional. With language that would send a purist to an early grave. Where have all the good books gone?

This rant is extremely unjustified to contemporary writers who produce genuinely good fiction. They are not really hard to come by, if we look carefully. The culprit here is a sense of guilt that over the past week, I spent quite a while flipping through dramatic, empty-headed books- I couldn't resist them. That is how they are made. Tantalising and irresistible, like the forbidden piece of rich chocolate cake. Thankfully, I didn't spend all my time on them. Sense prevailed, and the silly stories existed only on the sidelines, to be 'read' when the brain absolutely refused to delve or analyse or think. Part of what I've said, though, I do believe is true- how else could the blurb on every different author's book call him or her the best thing ever to have happened to literature?

Going off on a tangent, can certain kinds of reading be voyeuristic? The question popped up in my head as I was reading Howards End a few weeks ago. I was extremely eager to know how Helen would act next, what would happen to Margaret, to Len...is this interest in other people's lives, fictional though they might be, unwarranted? Or is it just that books give us the comfort of finding people in similar situations and hearing them say what we have always thought but never found the words to express? It is a wild, weird idea, indeed, to call reading voyeuristic. However, I want to know what drives this curiosity to know how a person's life turns out, to be interested in sin, guilt, revenge, retribution and romance. Is our reading a reflection of what we really are, inside? Does it rip open the facade we unwittingly exhibit and show us our desires, ambitions and baser qualities? This is something I need to work on.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Drought

The drought has set in:

1. In Roger Federer's career: Federer going on a winless streak. That will probably not take too long to happen if he continues to be in his current woeful form. Speculation, of course, blames it on everything from lack of motivation to age to a mere temporary slump- all followed by a question mark. In the meantime, a Spanish hero, reminiscent of one of the swashbuckling, horse riding, sword-toting warriors of medieval times who carried away beautiful girls, has risen up the ranks and upstaged the aging Swiss master. Change is good. I can, therefore, hardly wait till a certain Serb called Novak Djokovic overthrows Nadal.

2. At the Olympics, for India: A flash in the pan, the single medal, and it's all over. Every time the Olympic Games come around, we optimistically, cautiously, list out our 'medal hopes'- not to hear of them for months thereafter. Maybe, four years down the line, some of their creaking bones will make an appearance for want of younger, brighter sportspersons, sparking off debates regarding how the youth has gone to the dogs, is not interested in sports, how parental pressure drives schooling, and every other irrelevant topic under the sun. Fill the studios, sensationalise, keep the sponsors happy. Give the officials their foreign trip once every four years (is that why India doesn't get anywhere near winning a bid to host the Olympics?), wage wars over who will carry the Olympic torch when it passes through India en route to a more favoured destination (if India had been part of the bidding race); battle over who will carry the Indian flag at the opening ceremony. The sport? Well, that's on the sidelines, of course. We haven't forgotten it entirely. We'll deal with it once the diplomacy is done, and everyone has had his or her fifteen seconds of fame. And we'll remember to hype up the 'big' names- even if they tape their wrists as soon as they find themselves losing to somebody unheard of.

3. In the Ferrari F1 camp: They have gone without a win far too long. They blew an engine, the unlikeliest of mishaps possible, while leading the Hungarian GP (and so reminiscent it was of Michael Schumacher's car leaving behind a trail of smoke at the 2006 Japanese GP, allowing Fernando Alonso to power his Renault to victory and potentially the championship). Can no team do without a mid-season slump? This is where McLaren-Mercedes lost it last year, topping it up with the Spygate saga. Hopefully, Ferrari will be able to pull it together and get back in form. While I normally root for Felipe Massa , I'd give anything to see even Raikkonen win (I despised Kimi Raikkonen in his McLaren days- all of a sudden, he is a saint). All for the prestige of the Ferrari team.

4. In my intellect: Which would probably explain why I spent two precious evenings skimming through a Danielle Steel novel. Saccharine sweet, nauseating, excruciatingly tragic, over-the-top girlish- why on earth would I want to read such a book? Because my brains said they were taxed and needed some respite from war, philosophy and common sense; what better anesthetic than a mushy romantic novel? Sense prevailed in one department, though, and as I mentioned, I just skimmed through the book, instead of reading every single word of it. Nothing in it seemed to point vaguely to an improvement in vocabulary or wisdom.

The drought will soon come to an end, I am optimistic, in three cases for sure.

Friday, August 15, 2008

A Quiet Lunch of Contemplation

I sit down to my lunch all alone. My friends are on the ground floor, and I can probably join them, but 'Butter Fingers' being my second name, one I have christened myself with, I decide not to carry my food down the escalator or the steps. I sit by the balcony and look out into the distance as I eat. I think of reading the Agatha Christie memoir I have in my bag, but I wonder if it will seem ridiculous. (It won't, as I realise later, when I see a person at a table downstairs, eating lunch in the company of friends with his eyes on a thick library book- which reminds me that I need to find the library).


A rocky mound rises out of the barren earth, topped by a white, domed building. I wonder what it is. I don't see any gently rolling, velvety hills anywhere- just rock and mud, glass-fronted buildings and complicated architecture. The domes remind me, for some strange reason, of minarets. I think of the books I've read in the past few months, or am reading at present. My Name Is Red. The Kite Runner. A Thousand Splendid Suns. In fact, the memoir I am reading is also set in Syria. The last book I bought in Mysore- Istanbul. All set in countries with a similar background and culture, the same kind of architecture. And here it is, thousands of miles away, in a distant country as well. What has set off this interest and affinity for the Middle East and Hyderabad, I wonder. I am reminded of the time in Vizag when I used to awake early to prepare for the Board Exams, and sure enough, at four o'clock, the azan would sound from the mosque nearby, rising mesmerisingly in the quiet, dark morning air. I would listen to it fascinated, books shut out of my mind for the moment, not comprehending, just listening.


I think about places. About Mysore, where I stayed for just a little more than two months on a nicely-tended, well looked after campus, a world far removed from the dirt-strewn lanes and the chipped paint of the small town outside, one that seemed frozen in time, not concerned with the frenzied pace of its bigger cousins. The splendid buildings constructed ages ago seemed to preserve the ghosts of the past, keep them from being influenced from evil. Walking down a narrow lane one evening, I saw the unsymmetric houses inhabited by strangers- voices calling out from behind curtains, the air swelling with a scent I seemed to recognise as the soap my neighbour in another small town had used, a memory from when I was five years old. What the olfactory senses can do to you, bringing back memories of a town lived in long ago! Mysore is like Malgudi, unhurried and docile. The few pretences the town has are often hidden by wiser, more sedate elements. Small towns are, in fact, the same all over the country. The little garishly-painted temples sheltering under trees with sprawling branches; the bored, patient people waiting for a bus that may never arrive; the walls painted with the script of the local language, as if put there on purpose to confuse the occasional innocent tourist; the animal droppings along the road- all quintessential features of any small town.


I have heard people denounce life in small towns. They say life there is too quiet for them. Perhaps. But these are the places that throb with aspirations and dreams, where ideas wait silently to break out of their shells and create the success stories we all so love to hear about. True, opportunities are rare, exposure is limited. Life, however, is placid and comfortable. At times, it doesn't hurt to slow down.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Harrowing Bus Journeys

I have been in Hyderabad for four days now, and in one short evening, in the span of two hours, to be precise, gone around the entire city and its twin.

Last evening, after much seeking and searching, I boarded the bus home. It was my first time on that bus, on that route, and the only thing I knew when I got in was that it would take me at least forty-five minutes to get home. I fished my book out of my bag and started reading.

About half an hour later, I looked around to see if I could spot any familiar landmarks. Sure enough, a hoarding appeared, and I was glad to know I was on the right bus. (Yes, such doubts did assail me more than halfway through the journey- I am a born sceptic.) However, a little while later, I wasn't dropped off opposite the bank as I'd expected- the bus took a circuitous route, went through lanes and by-lanes (I never knew buses could fit into by-lanes); I almost pressed the panic button, but for the fact that I was rather sure nobody would want to hijack a busful of software engineers. I replaced my book in my handbag, and kept my eyes open. I asked the conductor thrice if I was on the right bus. A high-rise building rose from a sea of roofs, but just as I was beginning to think that I'd seen it in the morning, I realised with a sinking feeling that it wasn't the same one, after all. There were no familiar faces on the bus and that made things a little more difficult. Not that it is easy to recognise people after just two days at work, for when you see a face at office, before you can memorise it, it is lost in a crowd of other new faces.

The bus brushed past every major tourist attraction in Hyderabad- Golconda, Char Minar, Salar Jung Museum, the Planetarium, Birla Mandir- it was quite like being on one of those tourist buses that promise to show you everything but end up showing you nothing.

Despite all the misgivings and confusion, I did manage to get home in an hour- for I was on the right bus.

So, today, when I went looking for my bus in the evening, I felt more confident than I did yesterday. However, this is me we are talking about. Which is why the bus I boarded today was one that took a different route. It didn't take too long for my confidence to evaporate as the bus headed into Secunderabad after passing tantalisingly close to known roads and the Hussain Sagar Lake (I like looking at it, even though it is a poor replacement for the Bay of Bengal). Lost again. I, not the bus. The lanes and the by-lanes followed; I looked down contemplatively at the brown, muddy water swirling by the road where the bus stopped at a red light, wondering where I was going today, if I'd missed my stop- as a precaution (and because I was sleepy), I wasn't even reading. Through Secunderabad, past small railway stations, along impossible roads, the bus travelled. Roads that I didn't know seemed illusively familiar. I peered closely at the addresses mentioned on the boards of hardware shops, chicken shops, banks and pharmacies, for any indication of where I was. I was immensely relieved when I saw an 'H' after several nervous minutes spent reading the 'S' of Secunderabad. As the bus emptied and I wondered if I'd be the only one left on it, I saw a girl tuck her foot up on the seat. I'd normally call this despicable behaviour, but today, it only meant she wasn't getting off the bus soon, and I loved her for it.

Something has been going reasonably right, though, because I reached home safe and in one piece yet again.

Tomorrow is another day.