Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Seven Year Itch

Last weekend anon was in town after almost two years. We did what we usually do, i.e. she comes home, criticizes everything about my life, then SH joins and they both gang up against me, we shop, we watch movies, we meet the guys and we all get drunk together. Of course, now that it’s been over seven years since we have known one another, we end up repeating the same old stories, playing the same old music and cracking up on the same old lame jokes. The only difference is now, some of us are married and we expect them to laugh and enjoy the same way as we do, even though they have no background or context. But they politely oblige us and even patiently take pictures while we pose trying to recreate the past, notwithstanding the receding hair line, the bulging stomach or the wrinkles under the eyes.

So as I try to trace back my life over the last few years, here is a journey back in time: from college to Goa to Kerala to Coorg to Singapore to Malaysia to Cambodia to Goa again, these are the people I have grown up with, learnt to drink with, traveled with or simply called up in the middle of the night to crib…

SH, me and anon in the first term of college…

And on my birthday in campus on a cold December night…

On our way to Kerala…

Our roomie bonding trip to Goa…

Then in Singapore after graduating…

Roadtrip to Coorg…

Not to mention Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia…

Again in Phnom Penh, Cambodia…

Finally the Goa wedding last year…

Never even realized how the last seven years simply went by while we were busy making other plans

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Wall

This week the world celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which took me back to last year when I was in Berlin, witnessing all its historical associations, street art and distinctive culture. However, what stood out the most was how ugly the city was especially when compared to its European counterparts. Having already visited other historically rich cities like Istanbul, Rome, Florence, Vienna and Prague, I expected Berlin to be in the same league if not better, but as we entered the city centre, navigating our way through the heavy traffic, the numerous under construction patches, not to mention the torrential rain, I found it more like Bombay!

But then, over the next few days, Berlin captivated me in a way that no other city in the world can: the sheer power of no-nonsense history can make an indelible impression on your mind. I mean once you have stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate, felt the ruins of the Berlin Wall or just spent hours reading the placards at Checkpoint Charlie, you are automatically transported back in time as the famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech of John F Kennedy echoes in your ears or the Russian soldier just across Checkpoint Charlie stares into your eyes: cold, unflinching and steady. While the famous but uncharacteristically plain government building or Reichstag reminds you of the role it played in WWII and the “death strip” parallel to the Berlin Wall sends a chill down your spine, some of the other places like Hitler’s bunker, the Jewish cemetery or the Babelplatz which is infamous for the book burning by Nazis, repeatedly take you back to the dark days. Of course, there are other places like the Alexanderplatz, the City Hall, the Postdamer Platz or numerous museums, cathedrals and universities, but as beautiful as they are, once you have walked along the non-descript remains of the Berlin Wall, nothing can hold a candle to that.

I have no recollection of the Berlin Wall coming down, but once you have a taste of its significance even it’s only through books and documentaries, you can’t but help staring at it for hours, even as the busy pedestrians behind you impatiently push you down the street.

As far as walls are concerned, it’s safe to say the Berlin Wall is definitely not a imposing brick and mortar wonder.

Rather, it’s almost an anticlimax, but one which is loaded in history…

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Corporate Fairy Tale

We all have read fairy tales as a kid right? Remember those days when your world revolved around the Cinderellas, Rapunzels, Snow Whites or Sleeping Beauty? I, for one, loved fairy tales. In fact, to me fairy tales were like books on String Theory for Sheldon. Ok, perhaps not the best analogy, but there was a time, when I ONLY read fairy tales, and not just the regular ones, but even the most non-descript ones from all over the world, especially Greece and Russia.

Anyhow, over the past few years I have been observing some uncanny similarities between fairy tales and the corporate world. Think about it, every fairy tale would have these standard characters: the beautiful damsel in distress, the loyal (usually gay) friend, the elusive Prince Charming, the irrepressible witch, not to mention the scheming ugly sisters and finally, the all powerful, evil ogre (often green in colour).

Now, consider the typical office environment around you. Let’s start with the easiest, i.e. the all powerful, evil ogre. No points for guessing who he is: the CXO/MD who derives a sadistic pleasure in turning the fairy tale into a nightmare for every employee of the organization.

Moving on to the witch, which is not exactly rocket science, i.e. the immediate boss who reports to the ogre: usually spineless, sucking up to the green monster, petty and making life miserable for the beautiful princess and all the little people around her.

The elusive Prince Charming is also a very interesting character and almost all organizations would have at least one of these smooth talking extroverts who can confidently sweep everybody off their feet (including the witch and the ogre). This is the guy who will speak the most in all meetings, get invited to all the office parties, have all the women swoon over him and walk away with the highest rating and fat bonuses. BUT, there is one small problem. This guy WILL NEVER GET HIS HANDS DIRTY. He will delegate, he will manage and he will co-ordinate, but he will not, I repeat, will not do any work.

As for the loyal friend, he would always be the side kick: dependable, trustworthy and quietly efficient, he will be the person who will rescue the team from a crisis, he will work on weekends and holidays when nobody is around to appreciate it and he will get things done year after year, even though he barely gets noticed or appreciated. Until the day comes when he is tired of the Prince Charming taking credit for his work and he quits, to become a writer or a teacher, most probably in Kolkata.

The beautiful damsel in distress is a rare species in any company, especially if you are in a bank. It’s amazing how someone can get away with doing little or no work, as long as she has a pretty face and a bright smile. Struggling with excel? Why bother with the “Help” function when you can just shrug your shoulders and chat up the colleague at the next desk, who would be grateful for the opportunity to do your work. Of course, the company does its best to groom and retain the beautiful damsel in distress, because her mere presence increases the productivity of the rest of the ordinary folks on the floor, who will try to outdo each other just to impress the girl, blissfully unaware that the Prince Charming is already miles ahead in the race.

As for the ugly sisters, they are the most abundant species you will find in every organization: scheming, bitchy associates, close to the witch, but secretly plotting her downfall. They are the ordinary people with limited skills and ambitions, slightly cowardly, too scared to upset the apple cart and therefore going with the flow, taking pleasure in trivial office politics, but overall happy with the security of the monthly paycheck and the year end handout.

So, where do I fit in? While I started out as a bit of a Sleeping Beauty who struggled to mingle, now I am completely ingrained into the system, very much a part of the fairy tale, comfortably in the shoes of the smallest ugly sister.

While the corporate fairy tale is a long and winding story, it remains to be seen if it has a happy ending…

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Moment

Has it ever happened to you that you are in a situation, where everything is perfect and you are just sitting back, enjoying the experience, and suddenly, out of the blue, something trivial simply ruins it?

For example, it’s a weekend, you are watching a classic test match being played at Eden Gardens or Lords and India is batting and Dravid and Laxman are batting, and just when you think it can’t get any better, one of them gets out, and Agarkar comes out to bat! I mean, can you even comprehend how utterly pissing off it is?

Or take another example. You are in a movie theatre to watch that one movie which you had been waiting for, you just got your reclining seats and popcorn and you are all set for the next three hours, ready to be blown away, and out of nowhere, a trailer of Happy New Year pops up, completely killing the mood.

Even worse, you are out shopping, just the way you love it: alone, in comfortable loose clothes and flat chappals, looking forward to revamping your wardrobe, and suddenly, you run into some long lost college acquaintance, who, surprise surprise, sticks to you like a leech for the rest of the afternoon, making you wait impatiently outside the trial room, while she tries out multiple outfits and whines.

And don’t even get me started on the times when you are having the time of your life traveling across a new country, soaking in a new culture or talking to random strangers, when an Indian family approaches you and asks you in loud Hindi, “Do you know a good Indian vegetarian place here?”

But in my experience, the worst of them all is when you are in a nice restaurant, enjoying the good food, the serene ambience and softly singing along to the tunes of Bruce Springsteen or The Eagles, thinking to yourself, “Boy, this place has taste”, when suddenly, they start playing, “I want it that way”. Yes, Backstreet Boys, leaving you no option but to hurriedly call for the cheque.

I mean, talk about the moment that ruins the hours

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Unshushables

Ever since I started living on my own, I haven’t really “celebrated” Diwali. Honestly, I have never really understood WHY I need to celebrate it, especially in the way it’s usually celebrated: crackers, sweets, rangoli, lights and the other elaborate and intricate rituals that come with it. For all I know, give me four days of break from work, a couple of friends, pizza and some good movies with really good print, I can spend every day in peace and quiet, not to mention, complete darkness.

Now there is something very fundamental about Diwali which I hate: NOISE. For someone soft spoken, understated and restrained, I am very Bengali when it comes to day-to-day habits. You may call me pretentiously intellectual, but I simply hate loudness in any form, including its literal rendition. Be it the strident jokes/discussions at work, blaring loudspeakers during festivals, deafening music at a pub or simply Arnab Goswami being himself, I can’t bear anything which hurts my ears. Or as Jerry Seinfeld would say, I am a shusher who is always killing the mood, by shushing people around her, when they are just enjoying themselves: by shouting, or singing loudly, or talking on the mobile in a movie theatre, or bursting crackers.

But this is where you underestimate us, Indians. No other nation holds a candle to us when it comes to making noise. It’s part of our competitive streak. Go to any group discussion for a business school or campus interview and you would realize how 21 year old Indians prove themselves. When you grow up in an environment of unhealthy competition, there is no way to get noticed: to be heard, you need to be the loudest of them all. What you say is unimportant as long as people know you are talking. Nobody is listening anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the unbridled joy in wasting burning my money in the most literal way possible, but of course, that’s not enough. Others should also KNOW that I did it. So, unless I burst that particular cracker for which the noise travels the farthest or breaks all the decibel related laws, it just doesn’t give me the same pleasure. Diwali is nothing without a bunch of old people sitting in their homes, shutting their windows and pulling the drapes and putting on Times Now at maximum volume to drown the noise outside.

Now it feels like Diwali. Move over the Untouchables. It’s time for the Unshushables…

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Through the Land of Lanka

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in this case, it doesn’t even begin to do justice to what I experienced over the past ten days: the beautiful country of Sri Lanka, which, in my opinion, is right up there with some of the most picturesque places I have visited, be it Kerala, Sorrento, Salzburg or Amsterdam. For a small country marred by political tension, it offers an eclectic mix of history, breathtaking landscapes and delectable seafood. As a kid, Sri Lanka was synonymous to LTTE and cricket, but over the past few years, I spent hours researching about the country and almost knew the map by heart.

Then, just like that, we decided to take a quick flight over a long weekend: definitely the most impromptu international trip for me. Over the next week or so, we traveled over 700 Kms across the south coast from Bentota to Nuwara Eliya to Kandy to Pinnewala to Mount Lavinia to Colombo.

While Colombo was pretty much like Bombay, with its bustling city life, terrible traffic and heavy rains, it also exuded the similar charm of its skyline reflected in the sea which ran parallel to the narrow roads. Even though we spent only a day in the city, we managed to get a quick glimpse of the Galle Face Green, the Viharamahadevi Park, National Museum, Twin World Trade Center towers, Old Parliament Building, Fort district, Independence Hall at Independence Square and indulge in some souvenir shopping. But instead of staying overnight at Colombo, we decided to put up at a British Colonial theme beach resort right on the sea, at Mount Lavinia, about 30 minutes drive from Colombo. As beautiful as the hotel was, the highlight has to be the non-descript shack on the beach which served the most delicious and fresh seafood I have ever had.

In sharp contrast to the rest of the trip which was fairly hectic, our three days in Bentota was as relaxed as it can get. We soaked up the sun from our ocean view room, enjoying the sunset from the balcony, reading, sipping a cup of the Ceylon tea and just like that, falling asleep on the couch, barely aware of the rumbling of the waves, which was more like a distant lullaby. The Golden Beach beckoned to us every now and then, and we spent a lot of time walking trudging along the soft sand, sunbathing on the beach chairs or talking to the fishermen early in the morning as they showed us the fresh catch. We also took a boat ride across the tranquil Madhu River, a typical south-east Asian river cruise sprinkled with mangroves and wildlife. The visit to the Turtle Hatchery, though a novel experience, was quite forgettable and this would be one aspect of the trip I would be willing to forego when I revisit the country in the near future.

The day trip to Galle from Bentota was probably one of the most memorable excursions. With its rich colonial history, the Dutch Fort is a UNESCO world heritage site which offered a lot to visitors: be it the Dutch Museum, the Dutch Reformed Church, the Maritime Museum, the Astronomical Clock, the Lighthouse or simply the breathtaking sunset over the sea in the backdrop of the archaeological ruins. I even managed to capture a shot of the Galle cricket stadium: something I had seen multiple times on TV and the memories of Jayasuriya, Sangakkara and Jayawardena came alive for a moment. The icing on the cake was added by the fresh seafood platter which we devoured late in the day, as we stared out at the sea. It was hard to believe that this is the same place which witnessed the Tsunami a decade back, the ravages of which were still strewn across the roads as we drove by.

However, Sri Lanka was so much more than beautiful beaches, palm trees and old architecture. The long roadtrip from Bentota to Nuwara Eliya (City of Lights) was orchestrated with breathtaking views of valleys, meadows, mountains and greenery, not to mention the salubrious climate. Aptly known as “Little England”, Nuwara Eliya was created by the British into a typical English Village. The town hosted an old brick Post office, country house like hill club with its hunting pictures, trophies, an 18-hole golf course, horse race course, as well as creations of the famous British architect, Geoffrey Bawa, all of which were reminiscent of the English legacy. We visited the colourful Victoria Park, the beautiful Gregory Lake and the Macwoods tea factory, all of which concocted a powerful yet mesmerizing potion of the European flavour even in the remote hill station tucked away in one corner of Sri Lanka! The ambience at the St. Andrews hotel, yet another work of Bawa, added to the feel of the place, not to mention the awe-inspiring mountain view from the balcony of our boutique hotel. Yet, with all its European lineage, Nuwara Eliya was also home to Seetha Eliya, a Hindu temple enshrined in Ramayana as well as Haggala Gardens, which is revered as the place where Sita was kept captive by Ravana. On our way, we also stopped by at Kitulgala to take some picturesque shots of the Kelani River, where the Academy Award-winning movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed.

The next destination in our epic roadtrip was the hilltown of Kandy. Also a UNESCO heritage town and the erstwhile capital of Sri Lanka, it’s almost effortlessly elegant with its luxuriant prairie, charming lake, and misty mountains and the Mahaweli River flowing through it. On our way, we visited the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, which could very well be the proverbial Garden of Eden with its different varieties of orchids, flower gardens, medicinal plants and palm trees. The Temple of Tooth ensconced by the Kandy Lake could easily take on any major tourist attractions in the world, and as we took in the atmosphere, the world almost stopped moving. It was one of those rare experiences which completely overpowered me, like it happens when the spiritual journey overwhelms the religious one. Somehow the other attractions like the Gem Museum, the Batik Factory, the Spice Gardens or even the traditional cultural show paled in front of it. Finally, on our way to Colombo, we made a quick detour to the Pinnewela Elephant Orphanage to visit a herd of elephants bathing in the sea: an experience which can conquer you, albeit momentarily.

While the trip itself was a pot-pourri of culture, history, architecture and nature, the one thing that remained constant was the warmth, patience and jovial company of our driver Ranil, who tirelessly drove across the country, answered our million questions, took pictures as we posed in various places and enthralled us with little anecdotes. But for him, we would have never experienced the local flavour and would have remained a distant tourist who simply SAW the country without actually KNOWING it.

This time it was a whirlwind week which wetted my appetite; someday I hope I can do justice to what the country actually offers.

Sri Lanka, like its batsmen, has a style of its own: languid yet attractive, understated yet overpowering, calm yet vivacious…

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Ra.One Way

The last few months have been quite crazy, and it still hasn’t quite ended yet. For all I know, it’s Durga Puja and yet I haven’t had the chance to reflect upon it, let alone shop for it or actually go out and celebrate it as it should be done.

But tonight, I leave for Sri Lanka. Bit of an irony, isn’t it? Spending Dushera in the land of Ravaan, but I am not complaining.

Time to live it up the Ra.One way…

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fanny Unfound

Ever since I watched the trailers of Finding Fanny on TV, I was determined to watch it as soon as it releases. Idiosyncratic and creative promos, dialogues in English and a cast to die for: it had all the elements of my kinda movie! Not to mention, Homi Adajania’s first movie, “Being Cyrus” continues to be one of my all-time favourite Bollywood flicks. A bit of me died while watching his second movie Cocktail, but then again, the songs were well worth the pain. Ok, may be not so much.

Anyway the point is Finding Fanny promised everything that Cocktail did not. It did not claim to be a commercial Bollywood movie, it did not have a half-a-dozen dream sequences, it did not have a huge budget half of which is spent on foreign locations and the other half on Deepika Padukone’s wardrobe, thus leaving no money for a scriptwriter and most of all, it did not aim to become a Rs. 100 crore blockbuster. Instead it invested in brilliant actors (I mean if you can get Pankaj Kapoor, Nasiruddin Shah and Dimple Kapadia in the same frame for the major part of the movie, that in itself is a huge success), focused on a simple plot which walked the thin line between simplicity and banality and was brave enough to make a movie largely for the English speaking multiplex crowd. For anyone who loves alternative Bollywood, this was right up there with the likes of Lunchbox, Bombay Talkies, A Wednesday, Udaan and of course, my favourite, Delhi Belly. I mean it made all the right noises: a non-cringeworthy love story with a soul, a quirky sense of humour, awesome chemistry among the lead actors, a dash of local Konkan flavour sprinkled across the length of the movie, beautiful shots of Goa in the background and crisp editing. You really can’t ask for more, or can you?

As I wasted no time in heading to the theatre to watch the movie and endured long advertisements of diamond jewelry/toothpaste/insurance, trailers warnings of upcoming movies like Bang Bang and of course, the on-your-face anti-smoking campaigns, the overwhelming feeling I was left with was of anticipation which was never quite met. Of course I laughed at regular intervals and there were parts when I thought, “wow, I would have said exactly that”, but for the major part of the movie, I was, well, waiting. Waiting to be blown away, waiting to be mesmerized or simply waiting for that one moment which would make the movie memorable.

Unfortunately, that moment never came. Finding Fanny was as forgettable as its climax: an enthralling anticipation which sadly fails to live up to the expectations.

Ironically, while it was an entertaining journey of self discovery, it never really “found” itself…

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Malaysia: Beyond the Myths

Over the last week, I traveled across Malaysia, the second time in two years, but this time, we managed to go beyond the typical touristy stuff and discover a totally different facet of the country that continues to amaze me with its sheer diversity. While our last trip two years back was along the popular KL-Penang-Langkawi route, where we soaked up the sun in the beaches of Langkawi, enjoyed the seafood and the old world architecture in Georgetown and window shopped and partied in Kuala Lumpur, I knew it was not exactly my way of exploring a country, as much fun as it was. Even before I had boarded the flight back home, I knew I would be back in no time.

And last week, it was exactly what we did, and this time, I can proudly claim that we did some justice to the country. Traveling on a tight budget and without the luxury of economies of scale (last time we were five while now we were just two), we walked our way through the trip, taking advantage of the excellent public transport system (including the free GoKL buses within the city centre), putting up at budget hotels which just about covered the bare minimum and surviving on street food. Along the way, we broke some myths about the country: KL is really NOT all about shopping and there is much more to Malaysia than Genting or Cameron Highlands (Make My Trip, are you listening?).

Our trip began in the picturesque little town of Malacca (or Melaka), halfway between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. After the first couple of days in Singapore, we took a bus to this UNSECO world heritage site with a rich historical and cultural background from previous Portuguese, Dutch and British rule, ensconced in the southern region of the Malay Peninsula, next to the Straits of Malacca. Traveling across the border turned out to be quite smooth, with a couple of stopovers for immigration formalities.

Staying right across the colourful Jonker Street in an obscure family-run hotel, we had all the benefits of a house guest and none of the frills of a luxurious resort. Over the next couple of days, we explored the Heritage area which houses some impressive historical and architectural wonders like the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple (oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia), Christ Church (oldest Protestant Church in Malaysia), Dutch Square, Maritime Museum, Islamic World Museum, Sultanate Palace, Porta de Santiago, Stadthuys, not to mention the breathtaking view from the St. Paul’s Hill and the river cruise across the Melaka river, while enjoying the local Malay food in a quaint little restaurant overlooking the river.

In the evening, we would walk through the vivacious night market (only open on weekends) in Jonker Street, trying out the extremely appetizing street food (I tried everything from fried oysters to pork dimsums to chicken satay), listening to the local music and buying knick knacks at throwaway prices.

From Melaka, we made the epic trip to Taman Negara, the world's oldest tropical rainforest, estimated to be more than 130 million years old, covering an area over 4000 sq. km. To put some context, our very own Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai is only 100 sq km! But reaching the place was no mean feat as we used every possible mode of transport: taxi, bus, train, shuttle and boat. After traveling for eight hours, we reached the secluded rainforest in the village of Kuala Tahan. On our way, we realized this was a backpacker’s paradise with plenty of overseas tourists, but hardly any Indians on a family vacation.

As far from civilization as it was, we still managed to catch glimpses of a Jennifer Aniston movie on the only channel the TV offered and listen to Bollywood music in the shuttle. As for Shahrukh Khan, he is a popular figure even in Kuala Tahan! While the village itself was isolated, the jungle trek was as adventurous as it gets.

The permit to the national park is fairly easy to obtain and just a short boatride away. The experience of walking across the long suspension bridge overlooking the forest (Canopy Walk) was quite out of this world: scary at first, exhilarating in the middle (when you realize there is no turning back) and satisfying in the end after you have survived the urge to scream your lungs out.

Following the Canopy Walk, we trekked to the top of the Bukit Teresek Hill which offered a bird’s eye-view of the entire rainforest, but somehow paled in front of the Canopy Walk. For all our sedentary lifestyles and comforts of the corporate world, the jungle trek can be quite a test of stamina, but at the end of the day, it was worth all the huffing and puffing, especially if you had the surreal environment around you: the sheer isolation, miles of dense forest ahead of you, the eerie sound, the various types of birds, insects and small creatures which casually come in the way, not to mention the complete lack of any human contamination. We did not take a guide and it made us more acutely conscious that getting lost in the long winding trails can prove to be life threatening.

In the evening, we splurged on hiring a boat, just to cruise through the river across to Lata Berkoh, from where we again trekked to the waterfalls and cascade. On our way, we were lucky to spot a giant iguana, casually resting along the river, like it’s nobody’s business (and it wasn’t).

At night, we went for the night safari, and no, it was nothing like the nigh safari in Singapore! This was so much more natural and primitive, with ten of us, piled on the top of a jeep, driving through a rough trail through the thick forest in pitch dark with nothing but a torch to guide us. While we spotted some monkeys, owls and some other nocturnal birds and a couple of leopard cats, it was more the experience rather than the sighting itself that could make your quiver.

We simply didn’t have enough time/money for the camping, rapid shooting or visiting the Orang Asli tribal settlements, but someday I hope I could go back for these. Oh, and the food at our resort was mind-blowingly awesome. For a buffet which served a wide variety of local cuisines, I did not hold back and even had the fish curry, which I would have avoided under different circumstances.

The trip to KL was yet another long drawn battle with public transport, luggage, heat and our fast dwindling money. Further, the realization that this was the last leg of our vacation made us a little sombre and the very thought of the impending Monday morning was a bit dampening. But once, we had made our way to Bukit Bintang, the busiest and most happening part of the city, we cheered up considerably. We checked into the hotel which was again, a no-frills budget hotel, run by some migrant Bangladeshis who were extremely pleased to note that I came from Bengal and spoke fluent Bengali. It just took a few pleasant exchanges to ensure that we got our room upgraded at no additional cost and the manager was only too happy to help us for the privilege of speaking his own language for a couple of days.

While my last trip to KL saw me spend most of the time in different malls and the popular tourist attractions (Bird Park, Aquaria, Orchid Gardens), this time we stayed away from these. All I have to show for shopping are my cute 7 RMB (Rs. 140) pink slippers which are extremely comfortable, especially given the state of my fragile feet right now, thanks to all the trekking and walking. Of course, we were quite broke after we splurged close to Rs. 2000 per person to go up the KL Towers for a view from the open deck.

We reached the top around evening and stayed till after 8 p.m. just to see the city skyline in daylight as well as after sunset. The view was undoubtedly breath taking, especially of the lit-up Petronas Towers, but the facilities did not quite justify the obnoxious ticket prices. The open deck had no telescope or audio guide or even chairs/benches. Further, there was construction work going on and it all seemed too primitive for such an important tourist attraction. The Observation deck (the lower deck which is accessible at half the price) was more tourist friendly, but the view itself left much to be desired. However, as we sat in front of the Petronas on our last night, watching the fountain show and just soaking in the atmosphere, we were overcome by a feeling so powerful that for that moment, nothing else mattered in the world.

We traveled all the way north to Batu Caves, hopping across different railway stations. Dedicated to Lord Murugan, it is one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside India, located amid the imposing limestone caves which admittedly take some climbing, especially in the humid weather conditions. But this was one place infested with a lot of Indians, and for the first time in our trip, we felt distinctly at home, or South India to be precise. We even witnessed a Tamil wedding being conducted in the temple, and didn’t miss the chance to gorge on our favourite South Indian dishes in Restaurant Rani which proudly claimed that it served Jain food as well.

From Batu Caves, we took a long train ride to the southern part to the Shah Alam district, to visit the Shah Alam mosque, the second largest mosque in south-east Asia with a capacity to accommodate 24,000 worshippers at any one time. While it’s quite an impressive structure, with its blue dome (the largest religious dome in the world) and four tall minarets, it pales in front of the actual Blue Mosque in Turkey, the memory of which is still vivid in my mind even after three years. But the funny part of our visit was that they wasted no time in covering us up in burquas and a headgear, even though we were anyway dressed quite conservatively. As non-Muslims, we were only allowed to enter the premises with a guide assigned to us for free. Omar was an elderly man, extremely articulate and well traveled, who was a pilot for 18 years, before hanging up his flying boots. As he told us about the mosque, its history, architecture and customs, he also slipped in stories of his own.

Later, we visited the National Mosque in the city centre, very different from a conventional mosque in style and construction, and noted for its bold and modern approach in reinforced concrete, symbolic of the aspirations of a then newly independent Malaysia. However, it was as conservative as the Shah Alam mosque, given the pace at which we were again covered from head to toe in a flowing gown which was way too big for me. But as far as experiences go, visiting these religious monuments was right up there with my trips to the temples in South India or the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia in Istanbul or the Vatican City in Italy.

On our last night, we decided to finally explore the much-talked about nightlife of KL (which was the highlight of my last trip). While the notorious Beach Club Café was too pricey and too crowded for us, we still managed to find a decent pub close by, where we sat facing the Petronas, nursing our only drink for over an hour.

At the end of the week, I felt like I have really experienced a fair bit of the multi-faceted country and gone beyond the myths associated with it, even though I would like to come back again some day…

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Little Spark of Madness

This week marked a tragedy for all of us and no, I am not talking about Independence Day which is only a painful reminder of yet another year of freedom but not much else in terms of progress. On August 11, Robin Williams, one of the best loved actors all over the world passed away, leaving behind memories of sheer brilliance and light-hearted laughter. Ironically, for someone who made millions of people laugh, he died after a prolonged battle with depression and addiction.

Like most of the 90’s kids who grew up in the age of satellite television boom in India, my earliest memory of the actor was of course his role as the estranged husband who disguised himself as a nanny to be close to his kids in Mrs. Doubtfire. I have seen the movie multiple times and each time ended up with tears in my eyes (ok, that is not big a deal given that I cry easily). But not only did I fall in love with the character, it also marked the beginning of my obsession with the funnyman who was not exactly the conventional preteen heartthrob. While he wasn’t a Leonardo DiCaprio or a Brad Pitt, he held his own and managed to enthrall audiences across age groups. Over the next few years, I watched him play a variety of roles in movies like Jumanji, The Birdcage, Flubber, Patch Adams, Nine Months, Dead Poet’s Society and of course, Good Will Hunting. I just couldn’t have enough of him as I then turned to reruns of Mork and Mindy every afternoon after school. It was his comic timing and onscreen antiques that heightened my respect for a generation of actors who were actors in the true sense of the term: Steve Martin, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis or Michael Douglas. At an age when I should have been drooling over Backstreet Boys or Justin Timberlake, I was watching movies starring middle-aged men playing the father of the bride or a mental institute patient or a greedy stockbroker.

But for me, brought up on a healthy dose of Bollywood where heroes typically have a larger-than-life aura, be it in terms of physical appearance or qualities, Robin Williams was the first actor who transcended all stereotypes. Here was a guy who was probably shorter than the average person on the street, who looked like the average working class executive and who never beat up any bad guys to pulp, and yet managed to command a huge respect in Hollywood. Not only did he carry several films on his shoulders, he did it so naturally, that you would never even imagine him as anybody else but the character he portrayed.

For someone who immortalized the saying, “You are only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it”, it’s a tragedy that the little spark of madness claimed a life which made alive so many characters on the silver screen…