Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On Track

In the midst of spectators from Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Great Britain, Finland and Singapore, I watched Lewis Hamilton drive to victory. Strangely, I wasn't disappointed. It was an experience to be savoured, an ambience to be absorbed to saturation. Seeing the drivers in flesh and blood as they were driven around the track on lovely cars, waving to the crowds, was surreal- people I'd seen on television, admired and detested, but wanted to know, were right in front of me. Hamilton is definitely charismatic; he can endear himself to the crowds, and so can Nico Rosberg.

The race didn't go my way at any point. Hamilton sped off comfortably, the two safety car periods making no dent in his lead, his pit-stops flawless. Rosberg, challenging for a podium position, made a mistake that a rookie would have been ashamed of, driving clear over the white line as he exited the pit lane, incurring a drive-through penalty. Sebastian Vettel gave him company, being penalised for speeding in the pit lane. Adrian Sutil pushed a little too hard trying to get ahead of Jaime Alguersuari and took himself and Nick Heidfeld out, the latter already in misery having started in the pit lane. The Toro Rosso cars faced premature exits, in fact coming into the garage in the same lap, while brake troubles plagued Mark Webber.

Starting twelfth, championship leader Jenson Button did pretty well to finish fifth, consolidating his position on top. Rubens Barrichello finished sixth, giving the Brawn team something to smile about. The Ferraris continued their run of misery, both the cars finishing outside the points.

No pile-ups, no massive shunts, but the race never turned into a procession, as street races sometimes threaten to. The back of the pack- the Ferrari of Giancarlo Fisichella, the Force India cars, and Alguersuari's Toro Rosso, provided some excitement as they kept bunching up. On the track, how close or far apart the cars are becomes really evident, and you wait breathlessly for them to lunge at one another, to attack.

I wouldn't have missed this race for the world. One dream has come true, many to go.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sniff- Hamilton on Pole

Because I'm here, body and spirit, and this might well be my only chance ever to witness a race live at the circuit, I have decided to be unabashedly biased.

Qualifying didn't exactly throw up the results I expected. With little or no overtaking expected on a street circuit, the results of tomorrow's race have fairly been determined. Lewis Hamilton powered his McLaren-Mercedes to pole, while Rubens Barrichello will not be the most popular man in the Red Bull and Williams motorhomes tonight, the Brazilian swerving and shunting into the barriers just 26 seconds before Q3 ended, putting an end to any further efforts from the drivers to better their existing lap times. Sebastian Vettel will start second tomorrow, followed by Nico Rosberg in P3. Rosberg put up a decent show as the more fancied Brawns struggled through qualifying. Jenson Button didn't make it to Q3, nor did Kimi Raikkonen, the Brawn and the Ferrari not very impressive tonight. Raikkonen admitted they lacked speed, and attributed it to the fact that Ferrari were already concentrating on 2010, and work on the current car had stopped since the Hungarian Grand Prix. Ouch. That isn't very encouraging, with three races yet to go this season.

The other Ferrari of Giancarlo Fisichella failed to make it past Q1, his ex-teammates from Force India providing him company as they couldn't quite match the promise they have shown in the past few races. The Singapore GP seems to be all about adaptability- how well you can get out of your comfort zone and tailor your styles to suit the vagaries of a street circuit, especially, driving under floodlights.

Romain Grosjean spun initially as the cars came out on track, but managed to get his grip back and keep it going. Except for a few false alarms and sparks, there wasn't much excitement at qualifying. Barrichello's cup of woes overflowed, though, as a gearbox change means he will start tenth tomorrow, instead of from P5, due to the five-place penalty.

Stats apart, being at qualifying, hearing the first murmurs of disappointment and triumph, was an interesting experience. I might well have been watching a race at the Interlagos, squeezed in as I was between an Argentinian couple on my left and a group of Brazilians on my right. I don't think either party was fervently supporting Barrichello, though. They seemed more interested in the fates of Webber and Hamilton and, to make my life more bearable, Raikkonen. I saw only a couple of large banners, not quite the euphoric excitement I expected at an F1 race. This is probably the difference between a country that is steeped in motorsport tradition and one that has adopted it as, I hate to say this, commercial sustenance. I might be wrong, though. Tomorrow will tell. Singapore is a beautiful city to hold an F1 race in, particularly suited to a street circuit, and definitely rivals Monaco in terms of modern grandeur.

Just in case you are curious about the Fullerton, the Merlion, the Singapore Flyer and the Esplanade, names I have been mentioning off and on over the last few months, do make sure you watch the race. I have seen glimpses on the big screen on GP TV, and I never imagined it could look that real. The luminescence of the sea, the glitter of the skyscrapers, the magnificent structures all around the circuit make for some spectacular views. In just its second year, the Singapore GP has certainly proved a huge success, a massive magnet for foreign tourists and F1 connoisseurs.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Singapore Grand Prix- Friday Practice

An eight-year-old dream of mine is coming true.

I am finally watching an F1 race, live, at the venue.

The Singapore Grand Prix is here. The tickets which had been safely stashed away finally saw the light of day- or should I say the floodlights of the Marina Bay Circuit Park.

With traffic jams prolonging travel time around the island, taking a train was the best option, and I got off at Raffles Place and followed the clear directions to Gate 6, the entrance to the Esplanade Waterfront Grandstand. Full marks to the organisers for the arrangements- if India is ever planning to host an F1 race, it certainly has a lot of work to do.

Gate 6 is in the vicinity of the Fullerton Hotel, and the area offers some of the best views of the city. Merlion Park, the Esplanade, the skyscrapers in the business district, the sea- they couldn't have chosen better when they planned the street circuit. For once, without getting lost or confused, I made my way to the grandstand and settled in for the second practice session, having missed the first due to a delay at work.

Imagine. Think of a tight coil of anticipation unwinding suddenly, as the first F1 car roars around the corner, tantalisingly audible but not in sight yet. And soon, before you realise what is happening, it comes round the corner, speeding in with a high-pitched whine punctuated with thuds as the car bumps over the kerbs. The Red Bull cars came out first, followed by Williams, Force India, Ferrari, Renault, McLaren Mercedes and the rest. What an exhilarating sight it was, the glossy shine and vibrant colours of racing cars lit up by the powerful lights, sleek cars curvingh gracefully down the bend, precariously close to hitting the wall, but negotiating the turn with precision and near-perfection.

There wasn't much action during practice, apart from Mark Webber spinning while he was on top of the time-sheets and ending up in a wall, due to which the session was red-flagged for about fifteen minutes. This resulted in his slipping down the order, Sebastian Vettel clocking the fastest time, followed by Fernando Alonso with an inspired, last-minute dash in his Renault, shoving down ex-teammate Heikki Kovalainen to third spot. The Ferraris, sadly, were uninspiring, as was Lewis Hamilton. Earlier in the day, the first practice session had also witnessed a red flag, thanks to Romain Grosjean's mishap. This session was interesting in terms of the time of day- as twilight melted into night, the drivers had to deal with the transition from sunshine to darkness- a rather daunting task for them, considering every other race takes place in the afternoon.

Qualifying takes place tomorrow, and Red Bull and Brawn seem to be where most 'experts' are laying their money. Saturday will tell.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Meeting Bernie

I met Bernie Ecclestone.

I am no fashionista, couldn't be one if I tried ever so hard, but I like walking down the corridors of the impossibly glamorous malls on Orchard Road, looking into display windows at absurdly clothed mannequins, giant handbags, shoes that would make the wearer tower over an entire NBA team. Turn left, it's Louis Vuitton and Chanel, look right and you have Prada and Dolce & Gabbana. Labels rule. Orchard Road is the best place to be at to savour completely the flavour of the F1 season. Tourists throng the malls, and apparently, celebrities too.

Standing by one of the exits at Takashimaya, a small figure with an unruly mop of grey hair, wearing the familiar white shirt, he could almost have passed off for a nondescript shopper (if people who actually buy things there can be nondescript). But Bernie is the man with the deep pockets and the hands that hold the reins of F1, and it is hard not to recognise him if you have, for months on end, seen him strolling down the starting grid, patting shoulders in fireproof suits, having a word with team bosses.

I was, of course, dumbfounded, and after the word "Bernie", I just managed to choke out an incoherent sentence which I don't intend to repeat. I told him I was from India, to which knowledge his first sentence came out completely naturally- "India. We are coming there next year." He seemed pretty impressed by the fact that I was from India, and if I have contributed the tiniest mite in convincing the powers that be that there is quite a sizeable population looking forward to F1 in India, I will feel my life has had purpose and meaning.

I was speechless when I met Bernie and shook hands with him. I would have positively swooned if I'd run into one of the drivers. This is surreal. There was a very pretty girl beside Bernie, presumably Tamara Ecclestone, his daughter.

(The real reason I went to Orchard was watch-shopping. Tag Heuer blew me away. Only, the price tags were a little steep. We walked into Chanel for a lark, and walked out laughing after we saw a watch worth $75, 300. Only. Finally, though, I managed to find myself a decent black Esprit watch, not flashy, but very attractive. Simple is nice.)

Tremendous uncertainties, possibilities of turning round the corner and running into an F1 star, the thrill, the actual experience of living out what I've always wanted to see- it's all so overwhelming! Can I hope to get just a little bit luckier? Sunday will tell.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Reporting from the Front

Today I am rather convinced that India is not exactly in a position to hold an F1 race on a street circuit.

No, I haven't joined forces with the Sports Ministry- sadly, we have people who cannot tell a sport when they see one. Seeing the length of the lines of cars jamming the roads of Singapore this week, however, I can't imagine a race through the roads in India, when it is already bursting at the seams and the traffic threatens to spill over into the tiniest crevice possible.

The lanes of the Marina Bay Circuit have been closed to general traffic this week, in preparation for this weekend's Singapore Grand Prix. Cars snake through the tunnels at snail's pace, and this is when you regret your decision to take a cab instead of the train that would have delivered you home in half the time. Now imagine blocking roads for a week in India. Of course, we have impromptu closures all the time, but then something of this magnitude, requiring the best possible infrastructure, is something I don't think we are quite ready to pull off at the moment. What an irony that many of the people working on construction and laying roads in Singapore are from India!

Living in Grand Prix country is a whole new experience. A week of excitement, an influx of tourists, F1 signs everywhere, designer boutiques more primmed up than usual, models of cars and art inspired by them. The thrill is palpable, and Singapore is glorying in the attention, notwithstanding the fiasco of last year's race and the Renault revelations.

Just one more day to Friday.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Day 2 in Malaysia- Romping at Genting

Up in the Clouds


Deft Hands at Work
Day 2 of my Malaysia trip has still remained unrecorded. Indolence reared its ugly head, but no more. Here we go.
Our hired van took us from KL to the Genting Highlands, about an hour and a half from the city, a drive up winding roads into lush, green hills. Swathes of white cloud rested on the thickly forested slopes as we made our way up to the theme park, perhaps the heart of Genting. Our first halt was at a chocolate shop, where we secured 'supplies' of a few varieties to carry us through the day. We then drove up to the spot from where we had to take a cable car to the theme park. This was one truly marvellous ride, acres of rainforest stretching out far beneath us, mysterious and sinister as the cable car trembled and hobbled its way up. Beyond a point, all that was visible was a white wall of cloud, impenetrable to the eye, but just a misty sheath which the multicoloured capsules cut through with ease.
We alighted at a sprawling complex consisting of a mall, casinos and the theme park. We went down a number of escalators, followed directions, lost our way- but soon enough, we reached the gates of the theme park. People everywhere- it was like a carnival in progress, a festival of sorts. A quiet current of excitement reverberated through the air.
At the theme park, we split- not all of us had the stomach for rollercoasters and large swings that seemed to put to full use the principles of centrifugal and centripetal force. Two of the girls and I chose to while our time away at the stalls, trying our luck at the games, winning the smallest possible prizes, brazenly envying kids who carried away the large dolphins and rabbits. To break the monotony, we went on one or two of the rides- actually meant for kids, and where the only adults were the parents chaperoning them. Embarrassment has long become a thing of the past.
Up on the hills, the weather was lovely. Clouds drifted like smoke and we actually felt ourselves walking through them, felt their subtle touch on skin and clothes. I'll never forget what a beautiful day it was if I live to be a hundred, the damp clinging to our clothes and hair, walking aimlessly amidst throngs of people amusing themselves, a carefree day spent away from work. The best part of it was that we couldn't use our mobile phones, so for two days we were effectively cut off from the world we knew.
Lunch consisted of a bowl of vegetarian noodles, without traces of fish, shrimp and the like, a saccharine chocolate pastry and some extremely welcome hot coffee. Not a very appetising combination, but it is rather difficult to find vegetarian subsistence in those parts of the world.
We had an entertaining time with a couple of obliging clowns who crafted shapes out of balloons with impeccable skill- they twisted their fingers, turned their wrists, and voila! you had the shape you asked for. One of the mothers, however, complained to us about a bad-tempered clown- "This is not what I asked for!" They posed for pictures with us, and were generally rather amusing. It is a tough job being a clown, if you have to have a smile permanently stuck on your face, no matter how rotten you might be feeling deep within. Is a clown allowed to say, "Oh, it's just one of those days!", when he/she feels unreasonably low?
It was a peaceful, happy, long picnic, one that we returned tired, yet rejuvenated, from. You don't get so close to the sky and the clouds everyday. We returned to Singapore in the dark, with a number of memories hoarded away, lost in thought, not exactly looking forward to a new week- but life goes on. Holidays are more precious for their rarity, and that's the way it should be.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Unwanted Excitement

I realise it's been a while since I reported anything on the girlhood front. So here goes.

I have a new name- Lizzie. Blame it on the adult lizard and, within a few weeks, the baby lizard, that found their way to my room and chose to make it their graveyard- or coffin. One died at the door, the other near my bed, and I was left with the distasteful, goosebump-inducing task of carrying the corpses out to the refuse chute. Ugh! I still cannot think of that disgusting activity without shivers running down my spine. I'm quite brave when it comes to cockroaches and lizards, but only when they're alive. I really don't fancy dead creatures, especially when they hobble all the way to my room, only to die there.

And then there was the day when it rained so heavily on a very windy day, that my blanket and pillowcase were clean lifted off the clothesline, clips and all, and floated down to a windowsill on the sixteenth floor. No amount of ringing the doorbell or gentle, persuasive knocking could induce the inhabitants of the flat to open their door to a girl seeking what was rightfully hers, and the next day, my precious possessions were no longer visible fluttering from the window. Gone, irretrievably.

The incidents above should have convinced me of the total unkindness of living, breathing creatures. I just realised the perversity of inanimate objects as well.

Troubles come by the handful. So here I am, at half past four in the morning, cleaning out the keyboard of my laptop with my new handkerchief, trying to get rid of the crumbs from a bowl that chose to upturn itself precisely on my keyboard. The revenge of the God of Electronics. As I type, therefore, I have to have my eyes on the screen- lest you should be left to fill up the blanks in my incomplete words.

(How can you explain the fact that most crumbs chose to settle under 'E', the letter that I seem to need the most?)

Sunday, September 06, 2009

A Memorial to Girlhood

I have done, or been involved in, some pretty crazy things over the last year- too many for words to describe. For a change, I'll just let the pictures speak.


Saturday, September 05, 2009

Magic on Ice

My theory of unplanned weekends turning out spectacularly has just received a shot in the arm. A big one.

After hours of planning and trawling through the Internet for a place to visit this weekend, we fixed on the Esplanade- not for any particular reason. It was the best thing we could have done.

Cinderella, revamped and reinforced with a meatier storyline, played out on ice by top-class ice skaters- Cinderella On Ice- was the show we treated ourselves to. It was sheer delight from the beginning. Cinderella plays a chorus dancer who finds herself suddenly offered the chance to play Odette in a production of Swan Lake, and incurs the wrath of her already envious step-mother and step-sisters. Her grace enchants the young son of the Lord Mayor of the town, and of course you know what happens next. The fairy godmother, interestingly, is a gypsy woman in colourful clothes, carrying a crystal ball.

Ballet meets ice skating in this spectacular show, enacted by European skaters who have, at some time, been involved with the sport professionally. Clever lighting and sets, delightfully authentic costumes and apt music add to the thrill. Flying artistes, fire and rain, tap dancing on ice. I remember the 2006 Salt Lake City Olympics on TV, the never-ending sessions of figure skating on DD Sports, watching Ice Princess on Star Movies, admiring their pirouettes and lifts. I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd watch it all for real.

Towards the entrance to the Esplanade Theatre, we were greeted by four violonists playing to a crowd lounging around, listening as they wove spells with strings. We had 30 minutes before the show began, so we decided to tuck in, as we hadn't really had a proper lunch. Adventures of people getting locked out of theatres because they were a minute late came rushing into my head, and so we crammed in our Swiss cheese and tomato sandwiches and gulped down the vanilla milkshake with the delicious whipped cream and the luscious cherry on top. When we made it into the hall, three minutes before the show started, we found somebody else already in our seats. (A brief line of background is due here- our tickets had been upgraded, and they had apparently messed up somewhere, giving us the wrong seats.) A profusely apologising theatre assistant helped us out, running as if somebody's life were at stake, changing our seats and giving us an even better view than we were originally offered. I wasn't a bit annoyed by the confusion- it all turned out for the best.

Violins, Cinderella, living in a city that's throbbing with excitement as it gets ready to host an F1 race in a few weeks, an Il Divo concert in the offing. I'm living a story here.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Actually Breaking News

People thrive on sensationalism. Whether it's us feeding the media and driving journalists to talk in urgent, apocalyptic tones- accompanied by dramatic gestures, expressions and the works- or vice-versa, I cannot really say. However, as news of Andhra CM YSR's death and the recovery of debris from the crash started trickling in, it became evident how, more than concern, it was the idea of having something to talk about that was uppermost on people's minds.

Where I work, people are primarily from AP, and that they were extremely interested in the developments was only natural. What was annoying, though, was how the whole affair was being made to sound bizarre, how people were actually calling home for updates from TV9, proudly declaiming the latest they heard. They were swelling up with pomposity, the gleam of self-importance breaking through carefully arranged expressions to make a show of sobriety appropriate to sombre situations. Would the death of a common man by the roadside have provoked such excitement? Their 'excitement' was absurdly hilarious.

The artifice that prevails through every one of our moments in public life becomes all too evident on occasions such as this. No wonder then, that the news channels do their homework and play to the gallery; despite our condemnation of the crass publicising of what should essentially be private and quiet matters, we crave for a bit of news to 'brighten up' the dreary, seeming endlessness of everyday life. Can we, true to human nature, pass the buck and blame it on psychology and the various nerves and neurons we seem to have no control on, or can we consciously do something to knock some sense into ourselves?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Playing Truant

It is thrilling. Honestly. Not a trace of compunction bothered me as I left work early to finish up some work that couldn't be postponed (or they'd chuck me out of Singapore)- I had to get my work permit renewed, and it is funny that with just a few weeks left, I should have to go through the entire process again- they won't let people work on a tourist visa, do they?

The 'playing truant' part follows- it was actually just about an hour. I knocked off work two hours early, and by the time I finished up at the MoM office, it was over half past one- doesn't make sense travelling from the Riverwalk back to Harbour Front when your shift ends at 2.30. So I just picked out the most interesting looking exit, which took me over Elgin Bridge over the rippling brown waters of the Singapore River, hit an intersection, took the road more travelled (though I'd never been there earlier), and went on straight- aimlessly. I wanted to get lost. Unfortunately, some convolution of fate took me past the heard-of Funan Mall, and in moments, I was in sight of the majestic white spire of St. Andrews' Cathedral. Sigh. Back at City Hall. No matter how hard I try to see different parts of the city, all roads seem to lead to City Hall. I avoided the trappings and temptations of Raffles City and turned left into Stamford Road. Oh, that lovely building- it houses some really classy galleries and shops which display a good bit of European influence. Wandering on, I hit the Armenian Street, and I came across an intersection with a signboard pointing to the Peranakan Museum. I had a choice- to turn left and lose myself in a bit of culture and history, or to walk straight on to Fort Canning Road and lose myself in another maze of traffic.

The museum won hands down.

Peranakan is the term used to refer to the descendants of the unions of foreign settlers such as the Indians and the Chinese, with people of the local communities. These inter-racial marriages led to a fusion of languages and traditions, and 'Peranakan' is indeed quite an adjective in itself now. It is housed in an impressive building constructed in 1910, originally a school and given up in the mid-nineties as the school moved to the suburbs to cater to larger numbers of students. Exhibits include clothes (sarongs, baju kebaya and other traditional outfits), jewellery, the finery and dowries at weddings (a whole section on a 12-day Peranakan wedding!), a coffin (depicting the death rituals), religious figurines and a model kitchen.

The sections depicting the lives of nonyas and babas (Peranakan women and men) are a real insight into Peranakan ways of life. The girls were traditionally brought up to be good wives and trained in household chores from early on. They were pressured to have sons, and a painting at the museum depicts it all so poignantly- a dejected-looking woman sitting down with her daughters around her- yet another example of how women were viewed as little more than instruments of procreation. The consummation of the wedding itself was accompanied by a ceremony- again, aimed at testing the purity of the bride, who could be rejected by the mother-in-law if she was not a virgin. How women themselves can turn against their own kind will remain a baffling mystery.

The section on cuisine had some interesting, colourful displays of crockery, and descriptions of the kinds of food eaten. All this while, I'd just heard of nasi lemak and sambal belacan- now I know what they actually are.

Baba Bling is a temporary exhibit at the museum- Peranakan-inspired jewellery. Hairpins, broooches, necklaces and bracelets encrusted with diamonds, pearls and jade were on display. They are all the more sought after now for the increasing rarity of genuine Peranakan jewellery in the market. There seem to have been quite a few wealthy Peranakans around!


The afternoon could have ended after a quiet browse through the museum's souvenir shop (which, incidentally, is so strategically placed that most people enter it before they go into the museum itself). But no, I wanted more out of this promising afternoon. And true to the feeling that had been in my bones all morning, I got it.