Monday, November 29, 2010

A City with Character

For a city bursting at its seams, the streets of Lake Market, Calcutta, are unusually quiet. The brilliant yellow taxis, ubiquitous in other parts of the city, make only sporadic appearances on the tree-lined roads. Green and yellow autorickshaws splutter past arrays of bouquets, funeral wreaths and dyed flowers (where else on earth could you find a parrot-green bunch of petals?). Tinny-looking buses- which seem to be gingerly held together by a handful of bolts- rumble by indolently, window-panes missing, variously-clothed elbows shoved out through the bars; the names of the origins and destinations are painted on the sides of the blue and maroon bodies in loud, curly-edged fonts.

In these quiet streets, time has come to a standstill. It is a Sunday afternoon towards the end of November, but it feels more like spring than winter- the end of March, perhaps, when the cold season departs reluctantly, lingering longingly in its favourite patches while the firm, lengthening arms of the sun nudge it away. Old-fashioned, stately bungalows cast their sleepy eye upon the loitering rickshaw-pullers who rest in the meagre shade of the slim trees that bend their supple bodies to the song of the wind. Who built these houses, and when? The slatted windows speak of a different era altogether, and the old man in a dhoti and vest, thick glasses perched on his nose, might well be a surviving relic of the days that live on only in the mottled yellow pages of old books (and on the screen of a Kindle, perhaps). An elderly lady, wearing a discoloured white saree in the traditional Bengali style, shuffles down the pavement. This street is vintage Tagore, and as I stand by a dripping hand-pump on which some homeless crows take refuge, I cannot think of a more effective way of time travel.

Calcutta, in many ways, has withstood the ravages of time. The grime of decades lies so thick on some of its buildings it can probably never be washed away. Broken balconies bend under the weight of decades of footsteps. There is a timeless grace to this city that endows it with a character of its own, unlike others that succumb to the lure of snazzy modernity, often bereft of any identity or uniqueness. I haven't seen much of Calcutta, really- just seen a battered tram or two, caught a glimpse of the Victoria Memorial and been driven a short distance by a paan-chewing taxi driver from Bihar who spits out red squirts with clockwork-like regularity while talking politics. I've seen the soot-blackened facades of shops in the New Market and the relentless crush of people milling around in every inch of space available. Through the crowds and the sticky heat, though, you sense the throbbing that drives this city and puts things together in its own sometimes ramshackle way, keeping the wheels turning with the occasional glitches.

I might have stepped right into the midst of two rallies, one led by the Trinamool Congress and the other by the Communists, but we'll leave politics to another day. At any given moment, I'm sure Calcutta will impress you as a city with a heart, amen to that.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lifting Spirits

I have a mortal dread of elevators. No traffic, precipice or liberally-potholed road gives me more jitters than a closed elevator, so cramped and gloomy that the idea of a dungeon with bread-and-water begins to sound like Paradise in comparison. I might have to travel ten minutes or an hour through thick, honking traffic to reach home, but the worst part is almost always the eternity-long journey in the elevator up to my seventh-floor flat. There was a time when I enjoyed riding up and down elevators in shops, but that was when they were scarce- when do we ever want anything once we have plenty of it?

This particular elevator isn't the most modern of its kind- Elisha Otis himself would have shuddered it, because though physically safe, it isn't the best capsule for a tired mind winging its way home. Its walls are painted reddish-brown, just a shade lighter than the black on the doors. Profanities (more morally corrupting than the Rani heart-pierced-with-an-arrow Sunil kind) are liberally engraved on the paint, covered over, engraved again with the kind of determination that, if only displayed in more useful pursuits, would have allowed us to bid for the 2012 Olympics. Anyway. The only window to the world in this elevator of ours is the narrow dusty corona between the fan on the roof and the circular aperture it is set in. All you can see through this gap are grey-brown ropes, from this angle looking much too flimsy to be able to support potato-chip-and-soda-nourished weights. The only good thing about this lift is the privacy it affords- so you can pretend to be Vanessa Mae, play air-guitar, or waltz in the arms of an imaginary (or real) partner without fear of being found out. For when the elevator does stop, it does so with a noticeable convulsion- enough time for you to unentangle yourself from those imaginary (or real) arms and put on a poker-straight face, whip out your glasses from the cavernous depths of your handbag and assume the impression of a hardworking, ill-used software engineer with glazed, unseeing eyes.

Visitors to my flat will testify to the unholy claustrophobic gloominess of this elevator, and how it can drive you to hitherto unknown levels of temporary disturbance. (I have been known to talk to the fan in the lift, pitying it for its loneliness, perched up there amidst the grime and grease.) It also has a tendency to halt at the fifth floor for no reason. When it jerks to a stop and the doors slide open in a sinister manner, they reveal, almost always (only because nine of ten times cannot be an unqualified 'always') a nothingness, backed only by white walls. I jab frantically at the button to draw the doors shut and retreat into the unspirited safety of my four walls. The ride further up gets progressively eerie, because at half-past four in the morning, the slightest movement in the shadows is an impetus to an active imagination. Two floors up, the doors slide open, the familiar carpet appears and ground underneath- I'm home.

There was one occasion, though, when I was scared out of my wits as I stepped out, singing to myself, only to be confronted by the surly neighbour, who isn't the genial old 'Uncle' of books, but someone who grudgingly responds to your hello through set teeth, eyes boring into you as if you were a vile worm (I'd like to use the 'If looks could kill...' line, with a clever comparison, but looks can't kill, so I don't see why I should bother). On this particular morning, he was carrying a small brass plate with camphor burning on it, dressed in a dhoti and angavastram, looking askance at me as I almost bumped into him. I mumbled a greeting and walked away- spirits are trouble enough, without having to mention people. I turned the key and walked into my house, to the peace and quiet of wide spaces and large windows.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

There was a time when I used to await the postman's arrival eagerly. In the late nineties, when emailing hadn't quite caught on, and in the early part of this decade, when a friend and I refused to succumb to the impersonal, frighteningly quick transmission of events that took much longer to transpire, I looked forward to finding a thick envelope in the letter-box. I'd tear it open eagerly, trying to be as careful as possible but soon giving in to curiosity, leaving unsightly gashes across the envelope and leaving it just about fit to return the letter to for future sessions of re-reading. You know those lovely long afternoons when, on a sudden fit of inspiration, you pull out old stacks of paper from dust-laden shelves, intending with uncharacteristically stern resolution to throw away everything that you don't need- and at the end, the pile would perhaps be just a couple of sheets thinner, and you'd have ended up a lot richer for it. I love reading old letters- they carry the whiff of sky, sun and eucalyptus-scented winter breezes, of a childhood happily spent.

And now, while I don't have a postman to wait for, I do have another messenger- the man who delivers my books from the library. I love the texture of the plastic-covered, well-preserved books as they are pressed into my hand, more often than not new and unread (which is when I'm grateful for Chetan Bhagat's popularity); I sit down with them, puzzling over which to begin, admiring the covers, studiously avoiding the blurbs and saving the introductions for the last. (I have discovered spoilers in introductions earlier, and because I don't quite like skipping them, considering someone has worked hard on them, I just leave them to the end.)

So now, tantalisingly piled up on my bookshelf, lie Alice Walker's The Color Purple, a Rabindranath Tagore omnibus and Pallavi Aiyar's Smoke and Mirrors, a book on China that I've been wanting to read for very long. Lovely how you stumble upon books you really want.

Time, then, to set the pile receding.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What do these nights remind you of- these warm tropical nights, when perspiration trickles down your back in thin streams and your thin shirt scrunches up in sticky folds? The monstrous old fan huffs and puffs, hot dragon-breath trying hard to suck the beads from your forehead. You don't nuzzle your stained teddy bear as the night wears on- growing into the night, growing with it, its magic absorbing you, like life soon will. Your sheets are pooled around your ankle, kicked away in impatience. Is this how eager you are to go out into your new life, too, away from all you know now, familiar and loved though it might be?

When morning arrives, you will be a child again, rubbing the sleep from your eyes with your closed fists, faking a stomach-ache to get away from school. And maybe, just maybe, I'll let you stay home this once- some years on, you will not be able to, much as you wish. Run wild through the waving fields, soar away with your imagination into those vast blue heights, be one with those colourful kites and see the world as you want it to be. Because when you grow up, you'll realise that all that you were promised as a child doesn't quite exist.

Should I prepare you for deception, then? I'd rather not. There is nothing like a stash of childhood dreams and memories to draw strength from.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

When Billy Joel is reduced to comparison with Justin Bieber and Stephanie Meyer rubs shoulders with JD Salinger in "best books" lists, you really have to stop and wonder what the world has come to. Deification is not just for the gods any longer- you just have to be beautiful or write and sing about beautiful (as defined by society) people, and make plenty of money, to induce mass hysteria. It isn't just absurd, it is also deeply saddening.

Many-Coloured Splendours: Gangtok

The driver arms himself with a sackful of potatoes from Lachung and off we go, back to Gangtok. I look at the mountains, now hidden in the thick cloudy mist, that I feel like I’ve known forever. I cannot tear myself away from them, but leave I must.

Dusk falls in an hour or two after we set off, and the driver negotiates the tortuous slopes of the Himalayas in near-darkness. The Seven Sisters Waterfall, vibrant with human voices added to its relentless gush on our upward climb, now has nature’s night music for accompaniment. The tea stalls are shut, their proprietors walking about briskly in the cold air, and the prayer flags are no longer visible. For all we know, we could be driving down a road never traversed- and we still wouldn’t realise it.

The jeep halts suddenly and a torchlight is flashed through the windows. The tension inside is palpable- but then the man holding the torch grins broadly, says something in his language to his friends, and our driver steps out for a laugh with them. A collective sigh of relief is heard, confused questions are asked, and once again, a little weary, we’re on our way to the capital.

The fairy-lights of the city come into view, spread across vast Himalayan slopes. It stretches out into the distance, wide and endless, even as we dip into one trough and emerge onto another crest. Dropped off at the “bus-stop” where all the jeeps to and from major towns in the region converge, we make our way up a steep, moss-covered flight of steps- there are narrow stairways connecting one street to another all around town- to Mall Road. It is past eight o’clock and the last of the souvenir shops are preparing to wind up their business for the day. A teacher in a red cardigan over her synthetic saree shepherds her girls down a narrow lane to a hotel hidden in its recesses; a schoolmaster asks his restless students to line up so he can conduct a headcount. We find a vegetarian restaurant and finish dinner quickly. There is one dream yet to be fulfilled.

I go to the balcony in the morning to be confronted by a strikingly beautiful view- where clouds have swirled for three days now, mountain peaks now stand out in snow-covered glory, their peaks softly tinged by the first rays of the sun. The sky has been washed clean and is deliciously blue- our last day in Sikkim is one of the finest the town has seen in a while.

We take a taxi to Tashi Viewpoint, and our garrulous driver sets off at breakneck speed, anxious that we should make it there before the sun comes out or the weather stops behaving. All through his hurry, however, he talks rapidly, his left hand gesturing and waving as he frequently takes it off the wheel to establish a point. He is a practicing Hindu, he says, but was born in a Buddhist family, where the norm was to give one child away, male or female, to the monastery. His elder brother is a monk. He points to the shiny prayer wheel on his dashboard, a ubiquitous presence in cars in the region, and talks of its powers- about how it must be blown on by a monk before its effectiveness can be made visible. He shows us his house, and the school where his son studies. All along the way, we see children trudging up to school, some reluctantly, others nonchalantly; a little boy opens a bottle of mango juice and pours some into his younger sister’s mouth, giggling at a secret joke they share meanwhile.

We make our way up to Tashi Viewpoint, and from there, magnificently rising into the clear skies, I see the Kanchenjunga, the third-highest peak in the world. It is in fact a series of five peaks, and they spread out gloriously on this cool, crisp morning, unencumbered by their burden of clouds. A tour guide tells us of people who have been visiting for days for a glimpse of the mountain, but returned crestfallen each time, defeated by the weather- we should consider ourselves extremely lucky to have been blessed with such brilliant skies. And so I do- every inch of these ancient mountains teems with life, and to be able to see them in their full splendour, bathed in sunshine, is to have an imprint etched in my memory, one to pull out of the closet every time the question of the purpose of life nudges and haunts me.

Our final stop in Sikkim will be the Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Ranka, an offshoot of the one at Rumtek, the monastery at the heart of the Karmapa controversy. We are delayed by an altercation between the drivers of two vehicles which have brushed against each other, taking the entire thoroughfare ransom- our cab-driver gets out to talk to them and manages to placate them. “Men from my village,” he explains, as he gets back in and drives us up the road that sweeps into the monastery gates.

A long line of dark prayer-wheels greets us. We are told to touch them, one by one, before we go up the flight of steps to the monastery. It is a graceful, red-roofed structure with a spacious courtyard, at the end of which is a brightly-painted wall. We greet the two monks seated near the door and they invite us in. We are directed up the steps to the large hall where Buddha, serene and beautiful in His golden form, flanked by other deities, looks upon humanity benevolently. The profound silence seeps is overwhelming, and I think of this quiet temple, tucked away in picturesque pockets of the Himalayas, cut off from the bustle of the world below. The corridors are lined with closed rooms, warmed by the mild sunrays that slant into them. Young monks learn their lessons, talking to one another in hushed tones, smiling, giggling- but there is also an air of grown-up wisdom about them, perhaps endowed by the discipline and the maroon robes. We can hear lessons in English from a classroom window- a disembodied voice talks of rising early and sleeping early, and a group of boys repeats after it. Behind the monastery, the ground slopes up further to another building that we see monks walking up to, going uphill effortlessly. Tall trees canopy the sky- what a beautiful place this is in which to learn and live- it must be so much easier to be good here than in the unholy machinations of the plains! The older monks tell us the monastery is twenty years old, and follows the principles of Mahayana Buddhism- differing from the Theravada form of Buddhism that is practised widely in Singapore, where I had my first tryst with the religion. We request them to light a butter lamp for us, because the lama is not around, and they agree to do so.

We slip into the souvenir shop, where, as we look around, we have a conversation with a Tibetan man who used to be a monk, but now helps out around the monastery and teaches children. He explains some of the characters on the scrolls in the shop and asks us about our stay in Sikkim. He is genuinely pleased when we tell him how much peace we’ve found here, and shakes hands with us as we leave.

This also marks the end of a fulfilling journey, my first visit to a tiny bit of the little-explored Northeastern parts of the country- and nearly a month on, the hangover has still not subsided. The Himalayas still populate my dreams, rising grandly into the clouds and blue skies, some with sunshine and shadow chasing each other on their green slopes, others coarse from erosion and showing off snow-speckled surfaces. The river Teesta, meanwhile, flows silkily through the valleys, fed forever by the melting ice, pure and crystal-clear. This, after all, is what will remain when we have managed to self-destruct with all our callousness- rigid testimony to the history of millennia.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Edge of the World

At half-past five in the morning, the sun is making ready to climb into the sky, and there is enough light by which to watch the mountains take on their distinctive shapes, after the single continuous blur they seemed to have been in the darkness last night.

As I stand on the narrow staircase of the guest house, I see snow for the very first time- and oh, what an exalting feeling it is. That very moment, knowing I am in a nondescript village deep in the Himalayas, eyes resting on snow-capped mountain peaks, I feel as if there is nothing more I’ll ever need to ask life for. In a while, the brilliant white snow will seem to rise from the peaks in a drift of smoke, the clouds weaving themselves gently about the mountain-tops like the train of an unusually long bridal gown. Now, though, the mountains stand proudly stark, save for their only adornment of a fine layer of snow. The sun lightens the sky gradually and casts a sheer golden web over the mountains; as we nurse our glasses of tea, we watch the spectacular play of light on the mountains, the snow now glinting with an added fire.

We are driven off to the Yumthang Valley. A lady in blue looks out from her verandah and I wave to her- she inclines her head and smiles prettily. This has to be said about the people of Sikkim- they are very warm and friendly, right from the boys working at the small hotels and tea shops to the young monks studying at the monastery- they give away their smiles and laughter readily. They are well-informed and talk without inhibition on various subjects. When asked if Sikkim had always received enough attention for development and growth, the proprietor of a tea shop tells us how the government has redoubled its efforts at building and maintaining roads and other infrastructure in Sikkim, “jabse China chhedne laga” (ever since China started messing with us). We meet a local who, when told we are from Tamil Nadu, tells us about his son who studies engineering in Chennai. Taxi drivers give us lessons in Geography, discuss religion, family and politics. The laidback pace of life sucks you in, but you know that underneath the seeming placidity, there is a great deal going on, healthy ambitions ripening.

Further up through the mountains we travel, jolting over rugged, sometimes non-existent roads, we pass signs for rhododendron trails and bump over pebbles on the beds of transparent little streams. More snow-clad peaks come into view, gleaming iridescently as the sun gets stronger, despite which, a chill lingers in the crisp, fresh air. We stop by a slope that leads down to one of the tributaries of the Teesta, quite surrounded by the rugged Himalayas. I look at the rosy-faced young Tibetan women who run the tea stalls and envy them for actually being able to live here, amidst this natural magnificence; older women in traditional clothes with leathery, wrinkled faces shuffle back and forth from the wooden tables set up in front of their charcoal-warmed wooden cabins, selling souvenirs and warm clothes. Yaks chew cud on the grassy slope, and we pick our way through yak gob down to the pale blue-white river swirling cheerfully over smooth white pebbles. I cup my hands and take a swig of the clear water- it is deliciously cold and unsullied. A little boy collects tiny stones and skips them on the water. Quiet and pure, this could almost be a place on another planet. I don’t have the heart to leave.

But move on we must, and we’re back in the jeep and climbing again, clinging closely to the narrow “road” where one misstep could hurl you to death instantly into the deep, plunging valley. You can well feel your heart in your mouth when two vehicles try to pass each other in opposite directions on one of the tight hairpin bends, and once the obstacle has been cleared, laugh shakily and throw Sebastien Loeb a challenge- with your driver at the helm, of course.

We drive past little patches of newly fallen snow that still haven’t melted. Vast expanses of snow cover the grey, rocky faces of some of the mountains we pass. Approaching a height of nearly 15000 feet, we come across army barracks- a grim reminder of the inhospitable conditions that our soldiers fight in, another reason to question the reason for war and the thirst for territory.

We are at Zero Point, the tip of North Sikkim, right at the border with China. It is extremely cold, and the strong breeze is freezing our hands and noses and lips. We can hardly talk for the cold, and our fingers tremble as we try to hold our plastic coffee cups. A couple of soldiers are getting ready to drive away, but when we request them for a picture, they readily oblige. Once more, we cannot help but marvel at their tenacity as they struggle in difficult conditions so far from home and their families, working endlessly at the borders to ensure the safety of our country.

Snow still lies in mounds or in crevices between rocks, and I finger it gingerly in my ungloved hands. A little snowball fight ensues, and soon we are packed off in the jeep again- it is just too cold up there. However, the spectacular views of snow-shrouded mountain peaks more than make up for all the discomfort.

I have seen the Himalayas and marvelled at them- but I still haven’t had a glimpse of the crown jewel- the Kanchenjunga. It will have to wait till we’re back in Gangtok, though, and then, the skies will have to be favourable and we’ll have to appease the sun. For the first time in my life, I’m wishing the rain clouds away.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Funny how you just need an unfairly forgotten relic from your closet to remind you that your best days aren't past you yet, no matter what the world might insist on saying. You're just as much a girl as you ever were, and always will be.

This is what I'm talking about. At twenty-four, I'm still capable of curling up with a fluffy doll I bought last year- it is dusty and unwashed and has the odour of unused clothes about it. But I can bury my nose into its soft head and it won't complain. Its nose is flat and ridiculously violet. Its eyes stare without expression and it is quite drained of colour. But does that matter when it is a much-loved toy, or for that matter person, that we're talking of? It holds many memories, and is storing up some more even now as it lies placidly on my lap.

I'm reminded of the story where a boy had to have his beloved stuffed hare (?) taken away because he was ill- oh the touching simplicity of childhood! A link to the story will be much appreciated- I can't seem to be able to find it.

The rain is pattering on the sunshades where the pigeons roost- where will they sleep tonight? Do they have memories to help them through the storm?