Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Settling In

I never imagined it could be so disconcerting to come back home to your own country and have to 'settle in' all over again- after all, it has only been a year since I went to Singapore, and I also made a one-week trip to Hyderabad/Vizag in April.

A lot has changed since then, though, and with Vizag no longer being home, I wasn't particularly keen to come back here. There are people who think you oughtn't to be saying so about the country you've grown up in, and I have often thought so myself about people who spent a spell abroad and came back all altered and a little irreverent, but I know what it really feels like, now.

My last week in Singapore went by in a blur. Shopping, cramming things into suitcases and cartons to be sent off through cargo, packing for the flight, last-minute goodbyes, and that one last, longing look at sights that had grown so familiar to me, and which I'd fallen wholly in love with. Oh yes, even the Merlion, a little grudgingly. (I'm not the biggest fan of the Merlion, you see- while it is symbolic of Singapore's rise as an economic power and a mix of history and modernity, the country definitely has plenty of other very interesting landmarks.) threaded numerous times through the alleys of Vivo City mall, which connects to our office at Harbour Front, and now I could probably go around blindfolded. I kept telling myself, don't say goodbye, it'll only make you feel worse. I went on a boat ride down the Singapore River, on one of the little cruises that operates from Clarke Quay, and saw the Fullerton in all its splendid evening grandeur. I went to dinner with cousins and had Thai food, for the first time ever. It was a pretty memorable week, little disappointments notwithstanding.

I still haven't reached the stage where I can say with a clear conscience that I'm glad to be back. I'm going to work from tomorrow, 9 AM to 6.30 PM, and obviously, not really looking forward to it after the almost regular 8-hour shifts I've been doing. It'll probably only be the beginning of something exciting and unpredictable, because that is exactly how Singapore came about. Touch wood.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Back 'Home'

I'm back in India- and I'm homesick.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Saying Goodbye

Life isn't as predictable as it used to be. Not that it's a bad thing.

The past year has thrown up a number of surprises to relieve the monotony of unceasing weeks of work. Just when it began to seem that there never would be an end to listening to moaning users and reining in the unruly servers that insisted on crashing frequently, a little reminiscent of Indian politics, some special thing would come by to remind me that those few precious hours were what made life worth living, and I'd be a new person all over.

It is taking-stock time. Unpredictability, yes. I was supposed to return home this weekend, but after a few hours of suspense, will-they-will-they-not, my trip has been postponed to next Saturday. Doesn't make much sense to you, does it, that I would go around making such a fuss of just seven days? It does, to me. It is seven whole days that I am talking about, opportunity for another concert, or shopping (the song I'm listening to most now is Ka-Ching), or stumbling upon a perfect souvenir for somebody, going down an alleway expecting a hovel and tripping up on a castle- simply living out a dream for yet another week.

When you know it's time to say goodbye, it is hard not to ascribe a sense of finality to the smallest action of yours. Last week at Sentosa, it was about seeing the Merlion for the last time. It didn't hurt me much, because I've never been a big fan of this most famous tourist symbol and commercial money-spinner of Singapore- there are definitely better things here that the country can rave about. This morning, in a cab on my way to work, I watched with keen attention as the car burst through the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway tunnel (called the KPE) out into the open- and what a sight it was. Illuminated skyscrapers soared high into a dim blue sky irregularly patterned with splotches of hazily grey-brown clouds. A faint peach flush coloured the distance where the sun was trying to break through with promises of a fiery flaming morning. The clouds won. As we neared office, the windscreen was speckled with droplets of water. Rain, sweet rain.

I didn't ruminate over how many times more I'd see the splendid sight of the city rising majestically in the distance, clouds hovering low over the buildings as they kissed the sky, a glimpse of the street circuit, the grandstand and the domes of the Esplanade- there is still a while left, and besides, it just hurts too much when you have to say grim goodbyes to things you know and like well. I'd rather be thankful for the chance I was given to experience things I could only have hoped for in my wildest dreams- the F1 race (which tops the list without doubt), an Il Divo concert, an ice skating show, the libraries thrown open to my ravenous appetite, the malls (I have turned into a slight brand freak- but it'll soon pass), meeting people from around the world- oh yes, it is a rather long list.

Goodbyes needn't always hurt. With a little artful convolution, you can always instill a sense of optimism into them.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Of Barriers

Now that the Nobel Prize winners are being announced, we are back to recording statistics on the number of female winners, the last time a woman won the Prize in a particular category, the nationalities and religions of the different winners. India, as usual, will fuss over the honour being bestowed on an 'Indian-American', there will be lectures, 'exclusive' interviews and telephonic conversations with politicians. A debate will be launched on how chromosome study can advance research in medicine in India- talk, and more talk, until it's time for the next installment of The Perfect Bride.

We love to take pride in the achievements of people born on Indian soil, and maybe it isn't entirely unjustified, but why can we not replicate them at home? Dissatisfied students go abroad for education, unhappy with the infrastructure or frustrated with policies and quotas. It isn't a wonder that they choose to settle there and work in more conducive environs than at home. Education in India reeks of divisions.

The Nobel Prize hasn't seen too many female winners. Would it have something to do with the fact that women in many parts of the world are still struggling for emancipation? It is rather baffling, considering that a large number of women write and pursue research and social work. I'm not talking of any conscious discrimination against women in awarding the honours, but just trying to figure out why it is that, despite their having made huge strides in various fields, women still don't feature often on the lists.

And finally, does it really matter? What sense does it make to talk of Polish immigrants or Hebrew-speaking winners or orientation or gender, when all that is important is if a person's work has really made a difference, contributed to the improvement of the quality of life? To me, a book is about how it enriches and moves me, not about the religion or nationality of the writer. When we try so hard to do away with religious boundaries, why do we persist with barriers based on nationality or religion? Being biased is ingrained in our nature, we cannot really help it, but that isn't valid reason to make one sort of discrimination, or identification, to put it politely, more acceptable than others.

Human beings. We're incorrigible.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Eat Cake

Do people get embarrassed on their birthdays? I do.

Excessive attention is one thing. True, it is nice to be occasionally made to feel like a celebrity and bask in the glory of it all, but you also have to say thank you graciously to people who wish you in a half-hearted, formal, I-have-no-choice manner- you can just see it in their eyes, and what an effort it is to mask it in your own!

What made this birthday really embarrassing, though, was that my team at work and I managed to ruin somebody else's birthday. You see, my people had this cake in the fridge in the pantry, waiting to have teeth sunk into it. When they called me in, there it was in a red box, swathed in creamy vanilla, delectably adorned with slices of fruit and cherries, jelly permeating its layers, entirely in readiness, candles and all. We had a cosy little party and went back to work, sated with cake and delight.

We realised only fifteen minutes later that we had gorged on somebody else's cake.

There had been a terrible mix-up, you see. This vanilla impostor had somehow been mistaken for our own one, more compact and walnut-adorned. Don't ask me how the accident happened- I ain't the culprit.

We got them another cake, of course, to make amends. But we did have our cakes, and ate them too, for there was another party at night with the 'original' cake, and the story is still doing the rounds in office. As for the looks they gave us for having 'stolen' their cake- can we discuss that some other time?

PS- The person from the other team whose birthday it was did end up looking foolish- all ready to cut his cake, he could only smile stupidly when he realised it was already a shredded, crumbly remnant of its once plump self.

PS2- This post is named after a book by Jeanne Ray, where the protagonist bakes a variety of cakes and cheers people up. We had a variety of cakes in one day too, chocolate, vanilla and walnut, but the cheering-up part is still being disputed.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Stopping at Sentosa

I paid what is probably my last visit to Sentosa this afternoon. My roommates and I have taken in most of the attractions in our three trips there, and we covered the remaining parts of Fort Siloso (we saw most of it last time, and today it seemed surprisingly small and less impressive) and the visually appealing Songs of the Sea show. We learnt a lesson- never go by adjectives, especially when it comes to tourism. The 'longest' tunnel at the fort turned out to be a short walk, and it wasn't even much like a tunnel. It was damp and dank and smelt very musty, indeed- but apart from that, there was nothing sinister or extremely evocative about it.

We ended up at the souvenir shop like typical tourists, and as the man at the counter wrapped up my purchase, I asked him a question I'd been long wanting to ask the people working there- what it was like to come to work to the island everyday. He thought for a moment, and told me it was quite tiring- "but this is the retail shop with the best view here", and that his colleagues were fun to be with. I like optimism. He was very friendly and cheerful, and it must take a good deal of patience and saintliness to have to smile at every person who comes in and maintain an outward semblance of serenity, notwithstanding the rain or shine within.

Songs of the Sea is a tantalising treat- lights playing on water sprayed from the sea, huts on stilts forming the 'village' on the coast, colours conjuring magical shapes in the air, playing out the story of a sleeping princess awoken by a village lad's mesmerising song- telling how, along the way, he restores the lost arts and powers of various other beings. A short, simple tale, told in sparkling lights reflecting off the sea-spray, taking you back to when fairy tales were real, the whole entire truth, and being a child was all that mattered.

One weekend remains, and considering I have to use it well, I'd rather not do any planning.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Ambrosia and Revelry

Are there any beer-drinking competitions anywhere? If not, it should be made a sport. It would probably involve more spectators than participants, true, but I'm sure Heineken and Stella Artois wouldn't be too unhappy at the idea. Imagine beer being drunk by the gallon, fans cheering on from the sidelines with mugs and cans in their hands, the odours of fermentation all around.

But for the competition part, the atmosphere at the Singapore GP quite matched what I've just described. Beer was by far the most popular drink at the venue. Why, you could even tell from the brochure- while not allowing visitors to bring in any food/beverages apart from water, it mentioned there was enough beer at the venue to cater to the 'thirst' of patrons.

In fact, F1 is not just about racing. There is much more than just fast cars and politics- it is a three-day carnival. DJs, discos, stand-up comedians, pop acts, a paddock full of celebrities- the Singapore GP is definitely one of the more glamorous races on the calendar, and also popular with a number of ex-drivers. The F1 race is preceded by other classes of racing, so spectators here were also treated to the sight of whizzing Porsche and BMW cars. The atmosphere is absolutely electric, charged up with thrill and a sense of anticipation. This being a night race, there are ample opportunities to make it a visual treat, and spice things up with a good dose of nightlife. F1 Rocks, a new concept, was introduced at this race, consisting of a series of concerts featuring popular acts from around the world, leading up to the three-day extravaganza. In simple words, F1 is money. It is a sport, of course, but also a means of flaunting wealth, yachts and celebrity girlfriends. Exclusive parties, corporate hospitality and champagne separate the 'riffraff ' from the 'celebrities', so while we buy our own tickets and walk around the circuit, soaking in the atmosphere and ogling at the large screens and the expensive cars, they watch from the comfort of the garages or their own personal suites, wherever they are. Which makes me wonder- how different would that be from watching the race on television, if you are ensconsed in a booth at the circuit and watching it on a screen anyway?

India should bring F1 to the country, but it shouldn't become a farce like the IPL, not a platform for actors to sell themselves and talk in outlandish accents about things they hardly understand. Considering that the Sports Ministry isn't, to put it mildy, keen on F1 or even faintly interested in its merits, and with all the sweating over the most expensive Commonwealth Games ever, it doesn't seem very likely that F1 will be in India in a hurry, notwithstanding the optimism of Vijay Mallya and Bernie Ecclestone put together. A few years to go, then, if we do ever hope to have in India a conglomeration of nationalities drinking beer, watching cars speed around curves and blind turns (legally, for a change).

How long can we avoid the lure of money, after all? Bring it on.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Asia Hit by Nature

Nature has wreaked much devastation in the Asia-Pacific region over the last week. Typhoons, tidal waves and earthquakes have caused a lot of destruction and loss of life. For us, who live ensconced in our cosy flats and complain about 'monotonous' routines, these sudden reminders of the power of nature come as a rude shock. I see pictures and videos of people crushed under crumbling walls, wailing mothers trying to drag their children out from underneath mounds of debris, it doesn't really make much of a difference to my life- the next moment, it's all forgotten, because the Red Cross is probably already there, the UN must be sending out help, aid must have reached the suffering, and I'm deceiving my conscience, telling myself there is nothing I can really do.

On Wednesday, as an earthquake of magnitude 7.6 struck Padang, Indonesia, tremors were felt in Singapore as well. Our beds rocked, the wind chimes jangled madly, the heavy LCD monitors at office trembled on the walls- enough warning, so we could rush down into the open space by the block. There was nothing to fear, but those few minutes of scurrying told us enough about what cowards we actually were, how we feared for our lives. It should tell us something about how lucky we are, in reality, and how often the fact just slips past our minds, making not the least impression until a slight jolt shakes things into perspective.

There was fear, a sense of excitement, the usual traps of sensationalism and the eagerness to discuss it with everyone possible- as if we were 'survivors' who had come through an unimaginable disaster unscathed. And of course, at office the next day, there were people paying more attention to the earthquake than to their work. We never learn.

Over the past couple of weeks, though, there seems to have been a spurt in the number of natural disasters hitting Asia, and things don't seem to be getting any better. Is this Nature's way of reminding us of our responsibilities? Of pulling us out of our highly synthesized lives and reminding us what actual living is about, and what really matters?